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Framing problems

In this video, Dr Nick Patterson outlines problem framing as the first step in the problem-solving process.
NICK PATTERSON: Research suggests that when we’re confronted with a new problem, we often have a mistaken impression of what that problem actually is. If this is the case, how can we ever solve it properly? In this part of the course, we’re going to explore the problem-solving process. However, we can’t do that unto we have a problem to solve. This is why we’re going to pose a problem based on a simple scenario and attempt to resolve it by working through each step of the problem-solving process. As we do this keep in mind that while this may seem like a simple problem, the process we’re going to follow can be applied to any problem regardless of its size or complexity.
The problem we’re going to explore is a common one. So imagine this. You’re working remotely when suddenly in the middle of an important video conference meeting the internet connection drops out. You have no idea what the issue is and quickly discover you’re not as tech savvy as you hoped. Let’s approach this issue from the beginning by identifying the problem. The first step in effective problem solving is to understand or frame what the problem is and what it is not, as well as writing down to clarify the ins and outs and build a shared understanding of the issues involved.
So what is the problem in our scenario– that the internet dropped out, that we don’t know how to get it reconnected, that we don’t understand how it dropped out? There could be many problems. Which is the most important? Most people would probably say how to get it reconnected. However, in order to get it reconnected, we have to understand why it dropped out to begin with to ensure it doesn’t happen again. We have to use problem framing in order to clearly define what is and what is not the problem we’re trying to solve. Once we’ve done this, we’ll be ready to explore the next step of the process, which is analysing the problem.
Before you can come up with an effective solution to a problem, you first need to understand what the problem really is. In this video, Nick Patterson introduces a scenario that we’ll use to explore the problem-solving process – beginning with the importance of problem framing.
The concept of problem framing is based on an analogy with that of a framed painting or picture, where the frame creates a clear boundary between what is and isn’t considered to be part of the image.
This same idea applies to problem solving. In other words, problems need to be clearly defined – or framed – to better understand the actual problem you are trying to solve.
In this section of the course, we’re going to work through some of the key elements of the problem-solving process based on a simple but common scenario, which you’re likely to have experienced either at home or work; that is, when your internet connection drops out.
For most of us, addressing this situation would typically entail calling up our internet provider, talking to a technician and asking them to identify the problem and fix it for us.
However, without asking the right questions to better understand what the root cause of the problem is and how the proposed solution may or may not work – or whether this was the best solution possible – we also run the risk of the same problem occurring again and still not knowing how to fix it.
In other words, our ability to properly frame problems can help us to both identify better solutions and make the problem-solving process much more efficient.

Your task

Watch the video from Nick and reflect on the scenario described.
  • How would you go about breaking down and framing this problem?
  • What are the main issues?
  • What questions would you ask the technician and why?
Alternatively, you may want to follow the links in this article and share what else you learned about framing problems and/or how you would apply this to other common problems.
Use the comments to discuss your thoughts, post questions and reply to other learners.
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