How Effective Leaders Use Reframing to Tackle Challenges

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reframing challenges


reframing challenges from pragmatic magazine

“THIS ISN’T A PROBLEM; IT’S AN OPPORTUNITY” is a cliché with oomph. It’s a simple, oft-referenced statement masking a powerful tool called reframing. The essence of reframing is to encourage us to look at situations from different perspectives in search of unique and improved solutions.

For individuals involved in the world of design and design thinking, reframing vexing problems is a standard part of the process. For the rest of us, a bit of design thinking focused on reframing is invaluable in our daily labors. In my experience, effective leaders at all levels are masters of reframing when it comes to tackling the vexing issues and challenges of organizational life. Here are some examples you can leverage and build on in your workplace.

Reframing in Action

Here are three situations where reframing can create potentially remarkable results.


1. Challenging Conversations

Most of us dread difficult feedback or performance discussions, or meetings with managers seemingly resistant to the idea of change. For many, just the idea of confronting these conversations generates considerable stress that feeds our desire to delay or avoid them as long as possible.



Accept and internalize that challenging conversations are where problems are solved and the seeds of innovation are identified. Recognize that the sooner you move to tackle these conversations, the faster you create new solutions or uncover opportunities to innovate.

Approach the challenges in a positive spirit of issue identification and mutual problem-solving. There’s a strong chance that the employee with the performance issue doesn’t want to lose his or her job. And there are likely some good reasons why your managerial counterpart resists change. Once you’ve framed these as opportunities, you open up the lines of communication for productive dialogue.


2. A Competitive Threat

Competitive threats tend to induce a bad case of organizational tunnel vision where everything is viewed through the lens of this threat. Meetings to discuss the threat sprout like dandelions in a June Chicago lawn and many companies respond with what Jim Collins references as, “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” These chaotic situations burn critical organizational energy in unproductive ways and often work to help the competitor succeed.



One potentially helpful reframe is to recognize the competitor has exposed their strategy and where they are committing resources, leaving other areas potentially vulnerable. Instead of focusing on the question, “How can we match their strategy?” reframe the question to some variation of “Where can we solve problems for our customers that our competitors will be too distracted to pay attention to?” or “How can we minimize the value of what they are doing by drawing upon our unique strengths and relationships?”

Regardless of the question, you select, the one you are likely not choosing is the most common (and weakest): “How fast can we match their offering?”


3. Talent Selection

Many of us frame talent selection around the question, “Who’s the most qualified for this position?” And while this is understandable, it fails to take into account many important issues, including what your organization might look like in a few years and how you’ll be successful in adopting new technologies or shifting to new markets.



I unabashedly encourage organizational leaders to look for the best learners, the most open-minded individuals, and individuals who thrive on exploring the new and different as part of the talent-selection process. Instead of asking, “Who’s the best qualified for the job?” where the focus is on evaluation against some potentially dated or limiting job description, ask “Who’s most likely to help us move from where we are today to where we need to go in the future?”

This issue of reframing your criteria for talent selection helps you avoid hiring clones and minimizes your risk of hiring individuals who aren’t well-suited to helping you rethink (reframe) and reinvent your organization.


Help Your Team Embrace Reframing

These four approaches can help you jump-start reframing on your team.


1. Encourage Solution Development Using Multiple Frames

When your project teams or functional groups are navigating a tough decision, encourage them to use more than one frame to identify potential solutions.

In working with an engineering team stumped over an important and very technical issue, the manager encouraged them to shift from “This is a problem” to “This is an opportunity” and develop a unique solution. Using the opportunity form of framing, the team identified a completely different approach that likely never would have emerged with just the negative framing. It involved unpacking some assumptions and rethinking their design, but that’s what reframing is supposed to do.


2. Increase the Field of View

Often, we get bogged down in the minutiae of a problem, and our thinking becomes constrained to the small, almost microscopic, view. Instead, much like playing with Google Earth, zoom out and look at the bigger picture.

An organization struggling with a revenue shortfall focused initially on identifying where sales and marketing were falling short with their execution. By zooming out, they were able to locate a bigger issue with changing customer tastes.

I like to continue to increase the field of view so that I can see the issue in the context of the environment, marketplace, and even the world at large. Too many of us view the world only through the lenses of our industry and competitors when the real threat or opportunity is likely somewhere outside that field of view.


3. Reframe the Problem by Rethinking the Question

Although implied in these reframing activities, strive to deliberately challenge the question you are asking and either increase the field of view or challenge the assumptions behind the question.

I love the example provided by Tina Seelig, a creativity and innovation expert at the Stanford Design School, in a recent Fast Company article. She uses the question, “How should we plan a birthday party for David?” and the reframe “How can we make David’s day memorable?”

This example reflects a fundamental reframing of the problem. The problem isn’t the birthday. It’s creating a memorable day. Now that you’ve permitted yourself to look at the problem differently, the ideas can and will flow.


4. Try “Why?” and “Why Not?” as Powerful Reframing Tools

Most of us have heard of using “five whys” to help crystallize a problem or challenge a solution. You keep asking yourself or your colleague “Why?” until the situation achieves a new level of clarity (or they storm off with steam coming out of their ears!). My alternative is the equally simple (but not simplistic) “Why not?”

Asking “Why not?” helps uncover false assumptions and self-limiting beliefs, and it is, in itself, a direct reframe, leading to new veins of idea gold as individuals and teams let go of their constraints.


The Bottom Line for Now

Learning to reframe is a behavior worth developing. It frees you to think beyond the constraints of the moment and to look at situations from many perspectives and varying heights. It’s a powerful tool for stimulating curiosity and promoting innovative thinking on your team. It’s energizing to think beyond the perceived limitations of any situation. And it just might be the difference-maker for the big problems in front of you.

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Art Petty

Art Petty

Art Petty is a former software industry executive and now an executive and emerging leader coach, author and graduate management educator. He is creator of Pragmatic Institute’s Partner Learning Network online course, “Level-Up Power Skills: Influence, Lead and Develop Yourself.” He also writes the Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles and books. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.

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