5 ways to reframe a problem and find an innovative solution

Think differently and reframe your business problems. Sometimes the seemingly obvious approach is the least effective.

By Professor Paddy Miller

One of the biggest problems we have in business today is “mindset myopia”. We say that we need to adopt innovation, to digitalise business, to do things differently – but what we really need is to think differently.

Creating an environment that enables innovation is key. It’s easy enough to turn someone into an innovator, but we need managers who can create a space in which innovation is cultivated – we need innovation architects.

The problem with most managers is that they’re very good at solving problems and implementing clear-cut solutions. They’re very good at getting things done. 

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What they’re not good at is taking a step back and trying to look at a problem from a different angle. Instead, they jump straight to the first solution, which is rarely the most effective. In some cases, they’re not even tackling the right problem.

For example, people complain that a lift is old and slow. Managers rush to install a new lift at great expense. But the real problem is that the lift seemed slow because everyone was using it in their lunch hour. Staggering lunch hours, or encouraging use of the stairs, might have solved the problem in a cheaper and more efficient way.

So how can you get into the right mindset to reframe your business problems?

Create innovation architects

In financial services, thinking differently is very difficult. There’s the whole business of compliance, of regulators breathing down your neck. People become constrained and it becomes easier to avoid trouble, rather than take risks and innovate. Large organisations end up buying start-ups because they can’t solve problems internally.

DBS (Development Bank of Singapore) recently won a prize for most innovative bank in the world. Among their many forward-thinking practices, they’ve introduced a requirement whereby middle managers must be involved in every start-up they support. 

Those managers help the start-up get running, they learn as much as possible, then they bring them back into the bank. This way the CEO has made sure he is crafting in-house middle management innovation architects.

Change business language

Many businesses adhere to the age-old cliché of “we need to be more customer focused”. 

While it’s great blurb to put on a T-shirt, are we actually solving customers’ problems by adopting this approach? Being close to the customer has completely different meanings in different contexts.

To get ahead, cut through the jargon and look directly at who your customers are and what problems they’re experiencing.

Fix the business environment

How you structure your organisation can greatly affect creative thinking. This includes working hours, whether you enable flexible and remote working, and what your actual work environment is like. 

The acoustic design of a room, the tone of lighting, whether there are collaborative workspaces – these all combine to create an environment that influences creativity.

Hot-desking can enable people to work alongside different colleagues, while standing desks boost productivity. Even office plants can improve staff performance.

The devil is in the detail. Successful innovative businesses consider all minor details and prioritise worker flexibility. In the office, there are areas to meet collaboratively, while staff are encouraged to work when they want – sometimes taking extended lunch breaks or starting later in the day. 

Studies show that remote workers can be more engaged than on-site workers, and moving to a flexible work model saw productivity gains of up to 60 per cent for Fortune 100 companies.

Look at the bigger picture

Instead of focusing on the successes and failures of individual projects, there’s more to gain by thinking broadly. Once you get the culture right, you’ll realise that every project outcome is a learning experience. Communicate openly and honestly across the company – if it’s spoken about, the failings of one project may help solve issues experienced by another team.

Apply some pressure

Introducing time constraints to fix an issue can encourage people to be more creative. A pressured environment often inspires, forcing more innovative solutions to surface. It’s a great way to reframe existing problems.

Of course, how long it takes to fix a problem depends on its nature and scale. For a large issue, like introducing a new product to the market, you should aim to spend a week reframing it, then have a prototype ready within 100 days. 

There are many variables that affect these timescales, but it’s important to put rigid deadlines in place.

Ultimately, with the right environment and language, the adoption of an entirely fresh perspective and a little pressure, business problems can be approached with colourful innovation instead of stale tradition. This not only presents better everyday solutions, but fosters a more creative work environment in general.

Paddy MillerPaddy Miller is Professor of Management at IESE Business School in Barcelona, one of the top ranked business schools in the world. Raised in Cape Town, he is a Spanish citizen of 30 years and he now lives in Asia, as he is constantly seeking opportunities to learn about innovation in different parts of the world. He will facilitate the Strategic Innovator program in Melbourne in May. Learn more about how to shape the future of the finance profession

Read next: 7 ways to innovate (without the innovation clichés)


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