Too often, we are solving the wrong problem. Not because we don’t understand the problem itself, but because we don’t understand “why” there is a problem.
John found his relationship frustrating and thought his girlfriend was not listening, nor trying to understand why John was frustrated. He wasn’t able to perform well at work and believed his relationship was the reason. Molly, John’s girlfriend, wanted to learn to play guitar, but after weeks of practice, she was still unable to play one simple song without the impulse to break the guitar in half. She was blaming on John because he wasn’t willing to teach her the basics.
Does the story of John and Molly sound similar to you? Maybe not about relationship and guitar, but workplace and developing new skills, or parents and their children. While what they didn’t understand was the root cause. Applying some framing and reframing techniques, we can take a more in-depth look at John and Molly’s stories.
Frame the problem
John wasn’t happy. He was frustrated. He felt the world is against to him: Molly was grumpy, his neighbor complained the noise his dog was making every time when Molly plays guitar, his best friend just got married and suddenly he has no one to talk to, his boss was never satisfied with his work…
There are too many things that John is worried about. But the biggest one that is bothering John is about Molly. Let’s help John frame his problem into a clear statement:
“John is frustrated because Molly was not listening to his needs.”
Ask 5 Whys
Why is John frustrated? Because he believes Molly was not listening to his needs.
Why was Molly not listening? Because John wasn’t willing to teach Molly how to play guitar.
Why was John unwilling to teach? Because he needs to put extra efforts to keep up his work.
Why does John need to put extra efforts? Because he wasn’t a data person but was assigned to analyze his company’s e-commerce site traffic.
Why does his company ask him to analyze site traffic? Because his company realized the declining customer purchases over the last quarter.
We can keep asking more Whys or stop at any time, but usually after 5 Whys, we can see different insights about a “problem” that John was trying to solve. If we were only focusing on the first layer of a problem, we might easily assume that if Molly can spend time and listen to John, things will magically become perfect. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. When we asked the third Why, it reveals that John had other things that are causing the situation — and things that he can control.
What we need to do as the next step is to reframe the problem. We can see that John’s work was taking his personal time and hurting his relationship while he was not aware of it. Therefore, we can reframe John’s problem to:
“John has to spend a lot of his personal time at work and thus wasn’t able to keep up his relationship with Molly.”
We can further reframe the problem into a challenge statement:
“How might John work more efficiently so that he can spend time with Molly?”
And even further…
“How might John redesign his job to balance work and life?”
There are always easy ways to solve a problem, but not necessarily the right way to reach the optimal destination. In consulting, the most important skill is asking the right question to solve the right problem. Too often, people overlooked the importance of exploring the Whys and urged to provide answers, worrying that any delay would become a proof of inexperience.
No matter at work or in personal life, remember to ask 5 Whys and reframe the problem until you find the a-ah moment.