We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”       -Albert Einstein

In the January/February 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg discusses the ever so important topic of problem solving.

Wedellsborg; “The problem is we often solve the wrong problems. Albert Einstein and Peter Drucker alike have discussed the difficulty of effective diagnosis. There are great frameworks for getting teams to attack true problems, but they’re often hard to do daily and on the fly”. (Ref; The secret to better problem solving-Sarah Green Carmichael)

Are you solving the right problems?

That is the big question Wedellsborg is asking in this very interesting article.

He makes us aware that people tend to jump into solution-mode too quickly when faced with a problem, which means that they don’t really understand the problem they’re trying to solve. He continues by explaining that using a simpler framework, or root cause analysis as well as the 5 why’s questioning technique tend to get people digging deeper into an already defined problem, instead of reaching a new conclusion. He says that even though it can be useful, creative solutions frequently come from redefining the problem instead of getting stuck with the one you already have.

I came across both an interesting interview with Joseph L. Badaracco by Peter Bregman, as well as a whiteboard session (5 questions to help you make tough decisions) that introduces a new issue to problem solving, which is “grey area problems”; What do you do when there is no clear answer to your problem ? In his latest book; “Managing the Grey”; Five Timeless Questions for Resolving Your Toughest Problems at Work, Joseph L. Badaracco, the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School, posits five questions to help us solve “grey area” issues by getting the relevant information on the table.

Badaracco continues the interview by saying; “I think in most organisations, most people have a sense that the tough problems, the ones that keep them awake at night are the ones that are grey. I found this phrase, grey area problem, to resonate with just about anything”.

His background to these five questions were “interviewing” a lot of great thinkers over the ages and across cultural backgrounds. These ranged from philosophers to successful leaders, even artists and poets.

While doing this, he kept the question in mind of ‘what guidance could you get from these great thinkers ?’ which eventually ended up as these five sets of questions that are asked systematically to gradually weed out the solutions that are not relevant to all of them:

2)Basic duties
3)What will work in the world as it is ?
4)Core Values of your organizations
5)What can I live with ?


The first set of questions is regarding consequences. This starts off broad and looks at the full consequences of what your decision will affect. Who will gain something from it, who will lose something because of  and what will be the overall result of it ? Badaracco;“Often when we face these problems, and you’re under pressure in an organization, the risk and the tendency is to look for shorter-term consequences. But you’ve got to try as best you can, to look broadly and get a sense of what you can think the most likely consequences are and the most important”.

Basic duties

Second question is , okay, I’ve thought hard about the consequences, what are the basic human duties that I’ve got in this situation ?” A good set of consequences can be imagined by telling a lie, however, most people think that’s wrong. So it is important to consider that your decisions will affect other peoples lives and livelihoods, therefore think of what your duties are to these people, and take action from there.

What will working the world as it is ?

This is essentially a Machiavelli question, even though it can be found in writings of many great thinkers over time. The answer can more or less be divided into two parts: -it has to be something that is practical and likely to work, second part; You and your action has to be resilient, because we live in a turbulent, uncertain and political world. It is important to remember that the world is filled with people pursuing their own self-interests as well as goodhearted people doing what they can to make this world a better place. Therefore, the answer to this question has to take all of this into consideration, the response of people serving their own interests and people who are acting in good faith.

Core values of your organization

This question is about the values of your organization, not the ones that every organization has up on a wall, but the ones that people really care about. The ones that make them stay up at night and come into work on weekends. “These values are often implicit in stories that go through an organization of how the leaders, or the founders handle things when they got tough, and the stories are often somewhat inspiring”.

What can I live with ?

The final question is the most critical one, because whether you are running a big or small organization, you will, at some point, face a grey area problem. Badaracco says that:”The fifth question says, what can I live with ? In other words, what can you, as the decision-maker and as a manager and as a human being, live with ? What can you sleep with ? What do you think you can look back on ? You asked where the clarity comes from, and this is ultimately where the clarity comes from. It doesn’t come out of the analyses. It comes out of the decision”. The essence of this question is knowing that you could have narrowed something down to this very last question, however, if you are unable to live with the decision, it is definitely not the right one.

The idea behind all these questions is to be self-critical, and not get stuck in your own thinking but to try (to the best of your abilities) and see the possible solutions from other point of views and not just your own. And by answering them systematically, you will most likely reach one final, suitable solution.

Going back to the article in this issue of Harvard Business Review and Wedellsborg, he also introduces us to seven practices that can be useful in problem solving. He says that they can be used in one of two ways depending on the amount of time you have, and whether or not you are in control of the situation: Firstly, you could go through all of the seven practices, which takes about half an hour, or you can use a different method that can be especially useful when you are not in control of the situation. Here he says: “Perhaps a team member ambushes you in the hallway and you have only five minutes to help him or her rethink a problem. If so, simply select the one or two practices that seem most appropriate”. He continues by saying that even though a few minutes might seem like nothing, such short interventions could kick-start new ways of thinking, and thereby shifting the point of view of the problem. However, not all problems are that simple, and you might have to ‘reframe’ them several times before reaching the conclusion. He also recommends mastering this ‘5-minute version’ before starting on the main course, the full version with all seven practices.

The seven practices are as follows:

Establish legitimacy. In this first practice, Wedellsborg explains that reframing a problem can be very difficult if you are the only one in the room that understands the method. People who are driven by the desire to find solutions may look at your insistence on discussing the problem as counterproductive. “Your first job, therefore, is to establish the methods legitimacy with the group, creating the conversational space necessary to employ reframing”.

Bring outsiders into the discussion. This is the most helpful practise because when you bring in an outsider’s perspective, they will look at the organization and the problem with new eyes. The outsider will rethink the problem quickly and properly, according to Wedellsborg. “As research by Michael Tushman and many others have shown, the most useful input tends to come from people who understand but are not fully part of your world”. This is because outsiders are not there to solve problems, they are there to stimulate new thinking and to give the problem-solvers a new perspective. That’s why it is so important, when introducing an outsider into the conversation, to ask them to challenge the employees way of thinking and getting them focused on a new input instead of a solution.

Get peoples definitions in writing. Wedellsborg says that it is not uncommon for people to think that they have understood and agreed on a problem, only to discover down the line that they have completely different views on the issue. “For instance, a management team may agree that the company’s problem is  a lack of innovation. But if you ask each member to describe what’s wrong in a sentence or two, you will quickly see how framings differ”. All the employees may have the same idea of what the problem is, but not necessarily what’s causing it. In his example, the common problem was lack of innovation, however employees could have different views on the cause of it, for instance ‘lack of motivation’ or ‘not the right skill set’ etc. Therefore it could be a useful tool to have employees anonymously, send you or someone else, their interpretation of the problem in a sentence or two. Then putting all of these up on a board, to see how their mindset might differ.

Ask what’s missing. In this fourth practise, the author makes us aware of how we respond when faced with the description of a problem. He explains that people tend to get too focused on the small details, and therefore not notice what’s missing, an issue that can be rectified by specifically asking what has been left out. By doing so, someone can point out what is missing from the problem, and that could possibly be the boost that will help us resolve it.

Consider multiple categories. “Powerful change can come from transforming people’s perceptions of a problem. One way to trigger this kind of paradigm shift is to invite people to identify specifically what category of problems they think the group is facing. Is it an incentive problem ? An expectations problem ? An attitude problem ?” By highlighting the way that people are thinking about a problem-what the author calls metacognition or thinking about thinking-he makes us aware that it can be an effective tool to reframe the problem, especially in the case of sorting through written definitions that your coworkers have provided in advance.

Analyze positive exceptions. “To find additional problem framings, look to instances when the  problem did not occur, asking, ‘What was different about that situation ?’ Exploring such positive exceptions, sometimes called bright spots, can often uncover hidden factors who’s influence the group may not have considered”. In this paragraph, Wedellsborg highlights a different way to look at the problem. Rather than only focusing on the current problem and how to fix it, we can compare it to an instance where it did not happen. This can help us see how the circumstances have changed, which will make it a lot easier to either fix it or prevent it from happening again. Imagine that you forget your keys one day, and you dont want it to happen again the next day. By comparing the day you forgot your keys with one where you didn’t, it can help you analyse your problem better. The reason could be that you overslept and didn’t have enough time, you were distracted or anything else, but by doing so, you will indirectly find a possible solution to your problem.

Question the objective. In this final practice, the author talks about two people with conflicting interests-one wants the fresh air from an open window, while the other wants to avoid the draft. “Only when these hidden objectives are brought to light through the questions of a third person is the problem resolved-by opening a window in the next room”. By paying attention to all objectives and challenging them we can reframe the problem. It could be a change from teaching the employees a better skill set to boosting morale, or something entirely different, just by questioning everyones objective.

So, a new way of looking at problem solving is by having the right problem to begin with, as well as asking the right questions and having the right people involved. By looking at problem solving in this way, we can find solutions that not only benefit a few, but that will benefit the majority of people in an organization.

“A problem well put is half solved”      –John Dewey

Inger Lise E. Greger, MSc. Change Management 



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