Problem Framing: Gain a New Perspective

Ward Andrews
By Ward Andrews
Cover Image for Problem Framing: Gain a New Perspective

How many times have you found yourself creating a solution to a problem that didn’t exist?

A well-framed problem is the key to a successful solution. Even a slight adjustment in how you look at a problem can lead to a completely different outcome.

This is Part 2 in our series of posts sharing several of our tried and true methods for helping teams frame problems. Read Part 1.

The Powers of Ten Exercise

We often talk about taking a step back to get a new perspective, but we don’t often talk about how exactly to do that.

We all have those random moments in the shower, on a run, while doing the dishes, or driving a long distance when a powerful new insight suddenly pops into our brain. Why does this always seem to happen when we’re doing the most mundane tasks?

These moments of inspiration and creativity might feel random, but “shower thoughts” are a product of a specific process in our brains. Basically, we get our best ideas when our brains are flooded with dopamine triggered by routine and comforting activities like exercising or listening to music. In these moments, we’re able to get out of our linear thinking process and allow ideas that are usually isolated to randomly collide together in new ways.

When we’re working on a problem, we often get stuck in a rut as we fixate on a couple of specific strategies or perspectives. If we can take a break and release ourselves from thinking about a problem a certain way, we have a better chance to make new connections outside of those ruts.

So, how can we harness the power of free association to reframe problems for our products and solutions?

One way is with the Powers of Ten technique based on a popular short film created by Charles and Ray Eames in 1977. The film shows a close-up of a picnic in Chicago from one meter away, then zooms out to reveal the edge of the known universe, and back in again to the level of an atom.

Teams often get hung up on viewing a problem at a particular level and forget to consider what various magnitudes can look like. They’ll be head’s down and forget to think about the view from above.

The Powers of Ten technique encourages you and your team to explore a current problem on a scale. The scale can be anything that fits the circumstance - distance, time, size, cost, complexity, or even more abstract concepts. Once you’ve chosen a scale, you can explore it from different levels of magnitude.

As you zoom in and out of the problem, patterns will begin to emerge and repeat at different levels of the scale. You’ll start to gain a new point of view or perspective on the problem. New ideas will collide and you’ll begin to settle on the right level at which to frame the problem.

While this exercise may seem straightforward and simple, there’s a lot behind it. The problems we face in designing products and solutions are part of a larger system. We can’t design a solution to one problem in isolation from the larger or smaller issues that go along with it. We need to be able to consider both the granular and larger contexts in which our designs fit.

The point of this exercise is not to get frozen by the levels of complexity. Rather, we want to use the Powers of Ten technique to identify the right level at which we think we can make the biggest difference. It helps us get out of our linear thinking and into a free association mindset to foster an accidental collision of new ideas for innovative solutions.

We know the way to help unlock your team’s creativity. Let’s talk about how we can help you get a new perspective on your existing problems.