What’s Your Problem?:
To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve
By Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg
Book review by Jason Smith, PhD, PDMA Pittsburgh
Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg’s “What’s Your Problem?” is a great read for entrepreneurs and product managers interested in discovering the right problem to solve. Wedellsborg is a globally-recognized expert in problem solving and innovation, and his research has been featured in the Harvard Business Review.
Wedellsborg argues that with most problems in the world, someone has already framed the problem for you. What he and C-suite executives say is needed is the ability to “reframe” in order to discover the right problem to solve. Reframing requires three steps: (1) identify the original frame; (2) reframe to see the problem in a different way; and (3) move forward to keep momentum. Wedellsborg states that reframing is best applied to fuzzy problems and argues for multiple avenues for reframing.
Framing your problem properly is foundational to the process. Wedellsborg contends we need to write down the problem on paper. Although I don’t agree with many of his reasons for doing so, I do agree that it forces you to be specific and it slows you down, allowing you to see it, analyze it, and edit it. Problems we run into at work tend to run 3 different varieties: (1) an ill-defined mess or pain point; (2) a solution someone else fell in love with; or (3) a goal we don’t know how to reach. We need to challenge those problem statements to see what is really true about them, if the solution is baked into the problem, if there are self-imposed or unnecessary limitations, and if the problem lacks clarity. I do agree with Wedellsborg when he says that we often get too caught up in the specifics too quickly and that “you have to zoom out before you dive in.”
Once you’ve zoomed out, you can reframe the problem. Reframing is important because we’re often given a problem that’s partially baked; therefore, we need to revisit the problem and see if it is really the right one to solve. We should also think about reframing because we tend to approach problems through our own experience and training – when you’re a hammer everything tends to look like a nail.
Wedellsborg offers a handful of ways to help us reframe. Look at your problem from different angles. Get perspectives from people who think differently than you. Has this problem happened before? Look for hidden influences and non-obvious aspects to the problem. We are encouraged to also rethink and clarify the higher-level goal. Are there other ways to achieve that goal? Challenge the logic of the goal – does A really lead to B? Wedellsborg also says to “examine the bright spots.” Where else does this type of problem exist and how have they handled it? Where doesn’t this problem exist (or not exist to this degree) and how have they gotten around it? To me, these latter suggestions feel like analogous thinking and good market research, which are invaluable tools for an innovator. Wedellsborg also encourages the reader to take an honest look at yourself and see things from other’s perspectives because we often bring biases and assumptions about ourselves, our customer, and our organization that affect the way we see and approach the problem.
Once the problem has been reframed, keep the momentum moving and test it. This could be done by shopping the new problem frame around to stakeholders, customers, or potential investors for feedback. Wedellsborg also states that “pretotypes” could also be used in this stage. The goal is to get quick feedback and revisit the problem frame as needed. I agree that this approach is effective and aligns well with the kind of fast, iterative thinking and experimentation philosophy found in SPRINT, The Lean StartUp, and Amazon’s “fail fast, fail often” mantra.
The rest of the book focuses on how to overcome resistance to problem framing. These sections felt a little bit like filler material geared around general stakeholder management with a few useful tidbits thrown in. I think these sections would provide some insights for beginners, but personally, I would rather Wedellsborg cut those sections and expand on the prior sections with more real-world examples.
Overall, I think this book is a must-read for innovators. I agree with Peter Drucker, and I think Wedellsborg would agree that the right answer to the wrong question is dangerous. So often people and organizations want to get to solutions but solving the wrong problem can lead to underperforming or failed solutions. This book is an easy read with straightforward and practical advice. I hope it will encourage innovators to think differently and identify the best problems to solve.