The Power of Problem Framing

In the grand scheme of problem-solving and decision-making, problem framing emerges as a linchpin. It dictates our understanding, influences our viewpoint, and steers the trajectory of our solution-oriented approach.

Understanding Problem Framing: Different Perspectives

While problem framing remains a universal concept, its interpretation, significance, and application vary across fields. Here, we delve deeper into how different disciplines perceive and utilize problem framing.

Design Thinking Perspective

In the realm of design thinking, problem framing assumes a pivotal role. It paves the way for a holistic understanding of problems, thereby shaping the ensuing ideation and solution phases. Design thinkers rely heavily on problem framing to empathize with users, delve into their needs, and devise solutions tailored to their expectations.

What distinguishes design thinking from other methodologies is its human-centered approach. A well-framed problem elucidates the user’s needs, aspirations, and pain points, fostering a rich environment for ideation. Problem framing in design thinking often involves interviews, ethnography, and persona creation to ensure that the users’ perspectives are accurately represented and addressed.

Business Perspective

In the business landscape, problem framing serves as a compass navigating through the intricate maze of organizational challenges. It empowers business leaders to dissect complex problems, pinpoint strategic opportunities, and guide decision-making. By framing problems correctly, businesses can also promote collaboration, align stakeholders, and focus their resources effectively.

The complexity and dynamics of today’s business environment require a strategic perspective when framing problems. Business leaders often have to consider multiple dimensions, including competitive forces, market trends, internal capabilities, and stakeholder interests. Techniques like SWOT analysis, PESTEL analysis, and the Business Model Canvas can help provide a broader view of the problem.

Psychological Perspective

From a psychological standpoint, problem framing explores the intriguing interplay between our mental representations of a problem and our problem-solving outcomes. This perspective investigates how cognitive biases, mental models, and heuristics can influence how we frame and solve problems.

Research in cognitive psychology has shown that how we frame a problem can significantly influence our problem-solving strategies. For example, if a problem is framed as a loss, people are typically more motivated to solve it than if the same problem is framed as a gain. Understanding these biases can help us improve our problem framing and problem-solving processes.

Influential Figures in Problem Framing

Problem framing is the combined effort of countless academics, researchers, and practitioners. But a select few stand out for their substantial contributions to the field. Here, we introduce you to these luminaries and their influential work.

Herbert A. Simon

Herbert A. Simon, a Nobel laureate in Economics, is a pioneer in the field of problem framing. His work in bounded rationality and satisficing has significantly influenced how we understand problem framing today. Simon proposed that human decision-making is constrained by our cognitive limitations and the information available to us.

His insights laid the groundwork for understanding how we frame problems within these cognitive constraints. By acknowledging our limited rationality, Simon’s work guides us in framing problems in a more manageable and approachable way, enabling more effective problem-solving.

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, renowned for their work in behavioral economics, unveiled how problem framing significantly influences decision-making. They introduced the concept of loss aversion, the idea that people prefer to avoid losses rather than acquiring equivalent gains.

This seminal discovery highlighted that the way a problem or decision is framed (as a loss or a gain) could significantly impact the choices people make. Their work has had profound implications for a wide range of fields, from economics and business to psychology and public policy.

Horst Rittel

Horst Rittel introduced the term “wicked problems” to describe complex, ill-defined problems that defy traditional problem-solving approaches. Rittel argued that these problems could not be understood without developing a solution, underscoring the importance of problem framing in tackling such challenges.

His insights have shaped how we approach problem framing, especially in the realms of public policy and design, where wicked problems are common. By framing these problems effectively, we can navigate their complexity and develop more robust and resilient solutions.

Donald Schön

Donald Schön’s work on reflective practice has shed light on the dynamic nature of problem framing. Schön observed that professionals often frame problems based on their initial understanding, but as they gain new insights or encounter unexpected outcomes, they reframe the problem.

This process of reflection-in-action emphasizes that problem framing is not a one-off activity but a continuous process that evolves as we deepen our understanding. Schön’s work reminds us of the need to remain open-minded and adaptive in our problem framing.

Tim Brown

As the former CEO of global design firm IDEO, Tim Brown has been instrumental in popularizing design thinking, where problem framing plays a key role. Brown championed a human-centered approach to problem-solving, emphasizing the need to understand users’ needs and context before generating solutions.

Under Brown’s leadership, IDEO has used problem framing to develop innovative products, services, and strategies that truly meet users’ needs. His work has inspired countless designers and innovators worldwide to adopt a more empathetic and user-centered approach to problem framing.

World-Leading Companies in Problem Framing

Certain companies have carved out a reputation for their exemplary application of problem framing, setting benchmarks for others to emulate. Let’s explore how these organizations use problem framing to tackle challenges and drive innovation.


IDEO is a global design company recognized for its human-centered approach to problem-solving, where problem framing is a cornerstone. Through problem framing, IDEO uncovers deep insights about user needs, desires, and challenges, which drives their design and innovation process.

Problem framing at IDEO is all about empathy. By empathizing with users and understanding their context, IDEO is able to frame problems from a user’s perspective. This human-centered problem framing helps them generate innovative solutions that truly meet users’ needs. Their work ranges from designing user-friendly medical equipment to developing new strategies for tackling poverty.

McKinsey & Company

As a world-leading management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company frequently deals with complex, high-stakes business problems. To unravel these intricate challenges, they employ problem framing to structure the problem and guide their consulting strategies.

McKinsey uses problem framing to break down complex issues into manageable parts, uncover the root causes, and identify strategic opportunities. This rigorous and systematic approach to problem framing helps them provide actionable insights and recommendations that drive business performance and growth.


Known for pushing boundaries and encouraging “moonshot thinking,” Google stands out for its innovative application of problem framing. They often reframe problems to stimulate creativity and innovation, aiming to develop solutions that are not just 10% better, but 10 times better.

For Google, problem framing is not about finding quick fixes but about transforming how we see and approach problems. They often challenge traditional assumptions and constraints, opening up new possibilities and solution spaces. This bold approach to problem framing has led to transformative innovations like Google Search, Google Maps, and Google Glass.

Techniques Used in Problem Framing

Various techniques can assist in problem framing, each offering unique insights and perspectives. The following are some of the most widely utilized in a range of contexts:

5 Whys

Originating from Toyota’s lean manufacturing philosophy, the 5 Whys technique facilitates root cause analysis. By repeatedly asking ‘why’ a problem exists, you can peel back its layers, moving past symptoms to uncover the underlying cause. This technique ensures that the problem framing is not superficial but addresses the root of the issue.

Problem Tree Analysis

Problem Tree Analysis is a visual tool to identify and analyze the causes and effects of a problem. The problem is positioned as the trunk, with causes forming the roots, and effects as branches. This technique provides a holistic view of the problem, ensuring that problem framing takes into account the wider context and implications.

Reframing Matrix

The Reframing Matrix technique is designed to generate different perspectives on a problem. The technique uses a matrix to view the problem from various viewpoints, often leading to novel insights and solutions. This technique can help prevent tunnel vision in problem framing, promoting a more comprehensive and diverse understanding of the problem.

SWOT Analysis

SWOT Analysis, a technique used to identify Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats related to a problem, can help frame the problem in a broader context. It assists in identifying internal and external factors that can influence the problem and its potential solutions. By giving a holistic view, it ensures that the problem framing is both comprehensive and strategic.


Across the article, we’ve traversed the multifaceted world of problem framing, from its varied perspectives, influential figures, its application in world-leading companies, to the techniques that can enhance its practice. The journey through problem framing shows us its critical role in navigating the complexities of the modern world. By mastering problem framing, we can elevate our problem-solving and decision-making capabilities, driving innovation and creating a positive impact in our endeavors.

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