General Problem Solving and the Art of the Reframe

Problem Solving and the Art of the Reframe

This article was written by Leon Voon, Lead Designer & Co-Head at Experience Strategy Design, Government Technology Agency of Singapore, and was originally published on Apolitical, the global learning platform for government. It was originally published here in September 2020. We’re featuring the article with kind permission by Leon Voon and Apolitical.

As a policymaker, I have often seen myself as either a “deliverer of a service” or a “problem solver”.

What I realised when I worked in a central Ministry in Singapore from 2009-2016 was that the way we framed a problem dictated our initial direction for solving it. It set out a limited research scope and provided constraints — as well as blinders — which caused “tunnel vision” or led us to head down the wrong solution path.

Choosing the right problem to tackle was a crucial element in determining the kinds of solutions that would be open to us when improving a program or process. That’s why I often say that one of the “superpowers” of creative problem solvers is their ability to see a problem in a fresh new way, and how they challenge existing assumptions and/or mental models.

“Problem reframing is effective because it encourages us to shift from focusing on the symptoms of an issue to really understanding its root cause”

So I would like to share with you a powerful method of problem solving that I have picked up (partly from Design Thinking), called “the Reframe”.

A “reframe”, in design terms is the art of framing a problem in a way that is novel and different from how we originally viewed it. This new frame opens up new possibilities, inspires the team to explore solutions they may not have considered before and enables them to arrive at a solution that is far better suited to the actual problem compared to earlier solutions considered under previous understandings of the problem.

The Problem Isn’t Always What You Think It Is

Problem reframing is effective because it encourages us to shift from focusing on the symptoms of an issue to really understanding its root cause.

Several years ago, the department in charge of public cleanliness in a housing precinct in the North-East region of Singapore came to our team for a consultation about how to tackle the littering problem in the housing estate. This estate was newly built and a lot of younger people had recently moved in. They were littering more than the national average.

The team asked us for ideas, expecting us to give some novel ideas around public campaigns, anti-littering posters, or the design of more attractive garbage bins. They also thought we might have ideas for where to place the garbage bins that might be more effective in reducing the littering problem.

“A successful reframe is not a silver bullet. But there is often great value in leaving more time to both understand and address a problem, especially if it is complex”

Our team went out, and over 1-2 weeks, conducted ethnographic interviews and fly-on-the wall sessions where they observed residents in their daily life and normal neighbourhood activities. The team’s major insight was that because many residents were new to the area, they had not developed a feeling that “this is my home” yet.  Because there was a lack of attachment to the area, people were more likely to litter and care less.

So, the original frame was: This is a littering problem. We need a public campaign and more trash cans to collect residents’ trash.

The new frame looked more like: this is a new community and residents don’t feel connected to the area or each other yet — help them feel at home and bonded and the collective responsibility should increase, and littering decrease.

With this new problem frame, the team came up with a lot of ideas around how we could help the residents bond with one another and feel a stronger connection to the area. Our unproven hypothesis was that, in time, if people felt more connected to the community and one another, we would expect (i) less littering and less misuse of the area, (ii) more of other residents helping to pick up litter and applying social pressure to others to keep the place clean.

Reframing the Problem

In coming up with our ideas, we applied a blend of design thinking, systems/ecosystems thinking and stakeholder mapping. We used these tools and methods to visualise the connections and inter-connections and this allowed us to bring in different perspectives about what the problem might be, as well as how different users might react or what they might need, etc.

The team working with us was under pressure to achieve more immediate results, and so, despite finding the insights interesting, did not go with our proposed approach of community building. A successful reframe is not a silver bullet. But there is often great value in leaving more time to both understand and address a problem, especially if it is complex.

Consider an agency looking to reduce crime rates, who realise that a lot of crime comes from repeat offenders. One approach might be to pour resources and efforts in the anti-recidivism programs, job placement and education for prisoners. And if done well, these changes will have a good effect.

But another approach could be to take a step back and look at (i) root causes, (ii) additional partners and stakeholders, (iii) a system lens.

What one might find is that factors like (i) keeping youth in school, (ii) low-birth weight, (iii) after-school recreation/activities, and other variables, are also potential points from which to think of solutions, as they all have some effect on whether youth fall into criminal behaviour.

So a potential reframe of this problem is to put resources and efforts into these upstream areas and try to reduce the number of young people who fall into criminal behaviours, rather than to rehabilitate offenders later in the process.

Find the Root Cause — Then Think About Solutions

So in summary: before rushing in to solve a problem or review a program, identify and challenge key operating constraints and assumptions and pause to consider if this problem is really the only one to solve:

  • Instead of focusing on improving the process, focus on creating a better experience.
  • Instead of tackling downstream immediate issues, try to understand upstream root causes.
  • Instead of defining the problem specifically and narrowly, try framing it more broadly and opportunistically

There is a lot more to be shared about the power of reframing, and there are so many exciting things to learn. If you want to hear more about my experiences, get in touch via email — it might encourage me to write a second part to this article!

The views expressed in this post belong to the author. They do not reflect the official position of any agency of the Government of Singapore.

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