Become a Better Problem-Solver
The importance of how we frame problems
In the context of the burgeoning field of Behavioral Economics, Framing surrounds the mental picture you have of the world—and is the paradigm through which you perceive reality. And although you might not be aware of "your frame" when coming upon a new idea, it encompasses all of your unconscious assumptions during decision-making.
When it comes to the early stages of the innovation process, it’s important to take extra care framing your challenge or opportunity in a way that will lead you in the right, and decidedly new direction. Borrowing the same frame as the rest of your category, or framing things the way you’ve done in the past, will likely yield only more of the same.
The Creative Problem Solving (CPS) model suggests a system of divergence to generate different possibilities—and then convergence to select the ideas to move forward. The typical application of diverging in CPS is to create solutions—but many overlook its ability to create rich options for problem statements.
No matter what your innovation initiative might be, finding the right articulation for your purpose matters a great deal.
Consider the baby carrot
But Mike Yurosek, a carrot producer in California, had another way to frame it: How might we make an unsellable carrot sellable again?
In the 1980s grocers had strict guidelines for the shape, color and size of carrots they would accept for the produce section of their stores. Some carrot farmers framed their problem as: How might we get rid of unsightly carrots? The answers ranged from juicing, to processing for animal feed, to simply tossing them in the trash.
But Mike Yurosek, a carrot producer in California, had another way to frame it: How might we make an unsellable carrot sellable again? So he bought an industrial green-bean cutter and industrial potato peeler, fed his ugly carrots through both, and lo—the baby carrot was born.
As the story goes, Mike asked one of the biggest supermarkets in Los Angeles to try them out.
The next day they called and said, “We only want those.” From then on, the baby carrot craze was in full swing.
As you can see, purpose statements have the ability to create a whole new paradigm—allowing the process of generating new ideas to flow surprisingly easily. It goes to show that a provocative purpose, by its very nature, can produce radically new thinking—and, in turn, radically new solutions.
A problem-framing expert weighs in
Novemsky illustrates how Framing can have a fundamental effect on our own biases—and on the choices we ultimately make.
Nathan Novemsky is a Professor of Marketing at Yale University’s School of Management—and an expert in the psychology of judgement and decision-making. He teaches Problem Framing, a course unique to the Yale School of Management, which provides managers with structures to maximize their chances of making good long-term decisions—as well as understanding how natural psychological tendencies can derail decision-making.
Below is an excerpt from Professor Novemsky’s Problem Framing course where he illustrates how Framing can have a fundamental effect on our own biases—and on the choices we ultimately make:
Consider a choice between the two options below - which do you prefer?
Now assume that you have been given an additional $2000. Consider a choice between these two new options below:
Think now, which one feels better to you? Do you have a sense?
Let me point out to you (you may have already figured out), having $2000 to start - and now losing $1000, which leaves you with exactly the sure gain of $1000.
Having $2000 before, and now facing a 50/50 chance you'll lose it to go back zero - or lose nothing and be up $2000 - is the same thing as a 50/50 chance to gain $2000 or be back at zero. These are identical choices, framed differently. One is framed as gains. One is framed as losses.
And when we look at the data, what do people actually pick?
Almost all will take the sure thing in the gain frame - around 93%. But when we go to the loss frame, 2/3 of people will suddenly want to gamble.
It's the same situation, framed differently.
The right frame leads to innovation success
Framing is powerful. The truth is, you’ll seek what you set yourself up to seek—and you’ll find what you set yourself up to find. So making the effort to examine your challenge, and potentially shift how you frame it, is time well-spent. In my experience, the innovation teams who do this well find themselves worlds away from where they started—and agree that their landing point is significantly better than where they began.
Want to learn more from Professor Novemsky? Check out this video of his Problem Framing class:
©2015 Ideas To Go, Inc. All rights reserved.
Ed Harrington is an Emeritus Innovation Process Facilitator and Former CEO at Ideas To Go, an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies to incorporate the voice of the consumer in ideation and concept development. He co-authored the book, "Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation Approach Drives Your Company Forward."