Theory primer

By Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

Published March 18, 2020

In my book “What’s Your Problem?“, I share the scientific studies behind the individual reframing strategies. In this primer, I’ll cover the broader history of reframing. The overview also serves to give due credit to some of the many scholars and practitioners whose work forms the foundations of the book. The primer is divided into three parts:

  1. What the experts say
  2. Evidence from practical usage
  3. Scientific studies

Some of my choices are perhaps idiosyncratic, and other experts could reasonably disagree with my selection of whom to feature. If you are familiar with important experts that I haven’t mentioned, I would greatly appreciate hearing about them (use the Contact page to get in touch).

I. What the experts say

Across pretty much any area of study that involves problem solving—and that’s a lot—experts have stated, again and again, that reframing is a crucial skill. They don’t all call it reframing—that’s just the umbrella term I’ve chosen to use—but all of them speak about some variation of problem finding, problem construction, or problem restatement.

In the following, I have listed some of the key thinkers from different areas. It is not a complete list, and with a few notable exceptions, I have chosen to limit it to the earlier thinkers.

Education

“It is a familiar and significant saying that a problem well put is half-solved.”

– John Dewey, How We Think (1910)

The preeminent voice on reframing within the education field was John Dewey (1859-1952), a public intellectual of tremendous influence. In his 1910 book How We Think, Dewey outlined a five-step process of general reasoning and problem solving that started with the idea of ‘a felt difficulty’. Dewey’s framework became the precursor for later influential frameworks on creativity, including those of Graham Wallas, Catharine Patrick, and Alex Osborn.

As the following quotes show, Dewey’s thinking presaged several of the core tenets of reframing:

  • “The essence of critical thinking is suspended judgment.”
  • “A large part of [a doctor’s] technique, as a skilled practitioner, is to prevent the acceptance of the first suggestions that arise; even, indeed, to postpone the occurrence of any very definite suggestion till the trouble—the nature of the problem—has been thoroughly explored.” [My emphasis.]
  • “[C]ultivation of a variety of alternative suggestions is an important factor in good thinking.”

The torch Dewey lit and carried has been picked up by many of today’s education pioneers (for one example, see the work on question formulation done by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana).

Physics

Surprise, surprise: It’s Albert Einstein (1879-1955). Here’s a quote on reframing that IS actually attributable to the legendary physicist, as written in his 1938 book The Evolution of Physics, co-authored with Leopold Infeld (my emphasis):

“The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”

– Albert Einstein (for real this time) and Leopold Infeld

Management science

One notable management thinker on reframing is the Austrian-born consultant and educator Peter Drucker (1909-2005). The twin themes of questioning and reframing is woven through Drucker’s work, and he remains one of the most quoted experts on the matter. Here’s an example:

“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The true dangerous thing is asking the wrong question.”

– Peter F. Drucker

Chris Argyris (1923-2013) made the central contribution of double-loop learning. Argyris’s point was that managers need to revise not just their tactics (single-loop learning), but also use their experiences to question their underlying assumptions and create new, more accurate mental models of the world. The idea is illustrated here:

Other notable contributions in management include:

  • Karl Weick’s work on sensemaking in organizations, particularly in the context of uncertainly and disruptive change
  • Edgar Schein’s work on assumptions and espoused values within the organization, highlighting how such norms shape our behaviors.
  • Roger L. Martin’s work on ‘integrative thinking’, described in a series of books starting with Diaminds from 2010, co-authored with Minnea Moldoveanu. (Martin worked with Chris Argyris and credits him as a mentor).
  • Ronald Heifetz’s work on technical versus adaptive problems, as well as his writings on ‘getting onto the balcony’ (a metaphor for reflection in action).
  • Clayton Christensen’s elaboration of the Jobs-to-be-done framework (see the later entry as well).

Operations management

The operations scholar most often associated with reframing is Russell L. Ackoff (1919-2009). Ackoff had a deep sense of humor which is vividly on display in his more popular writings, not least the 1978 book The Art of Problem Solving which is full of case stories that were solved through reframing.

Mathematics

“If you go into detail you may lose yourself in details.”

– George Polya, How to Solve It (1945)

The central reframing thinker in math is the Hungarian mathematician George Polya, born Pólya György (1887-1985). In his 1945 book How to Solve It, Polya shared a framework for how to analyze math problems that greatly emphasized problem diagnosis, warning students against diving into the solution before they understood the problem.

Sociology

Sociology, with its focus on interpretation and the social construction of meaning, has contributed several thinkers on reframing. Two central ones were:

Erving Goffman (1922-1982). Goffman is credited with coining the term ‘frames’ in his 1974 book Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of social experience. While Goffman credits two earlier thinkers with the term, namely Gregory Bateson and Edward T. Cone, it was Goffman’s work that fully established framing as a core idea within the field.

Donald Schon (1930-1997) could be placed in the management column or the political science column; he worked closely with Chris Argyris among others, and also wrote a book about the influence of framing in the policy-making process (Frame Reflection, co-authored with Martin Rein in 1994). Schon’s central work, The Reflective Practitioner from 1983, highlighted the informal reflection-in-action approach of practitioners, distinguishing it from what he called ‘technical rationality.’

Psychology and behavioral economics

Within psychology, the Nobel prize winning work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky is considered the preeminent contribution to the field. As outlined in Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he and Tversky conducted a series of studies that demonstrated how different ways of framing the same choice would have dramatic effects on people’s actions.

A much earlier branch of psychology should also be mentioned, namely the Gestalt school. The Gestalt psychologists took special interest in insight problems, meaning problems where the solution depended on a conceptual shift rather than linear calculation (Karl Duncker’s work, mentioned in the book, is one example). Max Wertheimer, one of the founders of the Gestalt movement, said in his 1945 book Productive Thinking:

“[T]he function of thinking is not just solving an actual problem but discovering, envisaging, going into deeper questions. Often in great discoveries the most important thing is that a certain question is found.”

– Max Wertheimer

Linguistics

The study of languages has provided a separate strand of research on framing. One early contribution is the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which was among the first theories to explore how the words we use influences the way we perceive and make sense of the world.

The contemporary expert on framing in language is arguably the linguist George Lakoff, author of Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, which explores some of the underlying psychological mechanisms by which frames are formed (in the book, Lakoff talks about categories and schemas, two related concepts). The work of Douglas Hofstadter on metaphors is another example.

Political science

Within political science, the study of reframing has focused on the more manipulative aspects of the phenomenon, including its uses and abuses in propaganda and the battle of rival framings (one frequently cited example: freedom fighters vs. terrorists).

The Australian scholar Carol Bacchi is a key name due to her creation of what’s called the WPR framework, short for ‘What is The Problem Represented to Be?’ Bacchi’s six-step framework centers on how political ‘problems’ are constructed or produced by various stakeholders, and how that framing affects the policies considered. My book’s “Look outside the frame” strategy is partially inspired by one of the question Bacchi poses for policies, quoted in the book Engaging with Carol Bacchi (2012):

What is left unproblematic in this problem representation? Where are the silences? Can the ‘problem’ be thought about differently?

– Carol Bacchi

Philosophy of science

Two main names, both of whom explicitly discussed our frames of understanding and how they change over time, are:

Thomas Kuhn—whose idea of paradigm shifts within science is comparable to a large-scale version of reframing, happening not for individuals but for entire scientific communities.

Michel Foucault—whose idea of discourse reflects a similar idea as Kuhn’s, originating in the humanities and focused on society as a whole rather than science alone.

Negotiation and conflict resolution

One of the earliest reframing thinkers was Mary Parker Follett; her work on conflict resolution presaged some of the work of later negotiation scholars. Among these, the most notable ones remain Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton, whose book Getting to Yes provided a strong and enduring paradigm for the current research and practice of negotiation.


Here’s the essence of part I: experts from many disciplines have said that reframing is really important.

Expert testimony is not the same as proof, of course. Earlier in human history, you could have compiled a similar list of smart people saying that diseases were caused by bad odors. A favorite cautionary example of mine is Charles Delucena Meigs, an august physician who in 1854 confidently rejected the emerging germ theory of disease with the immortal—and also literally mortal—words “Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean”.

Still, on balance, the list should skew the judgment in favor of reframing, for two reasons. One, the insights come from a wide range of different fields; when experts in multiple independent fields arrive at the same conclusion, there’s a greater likelihood that it’s true. Two, all of those fields have developed better (if not perfect) standards of evidence since the merry medical murderousness of the 1800s.

II. Evidence from practical usage

The second category of evidence is the on-going and explicit usage of reframing in various fields of practice.

In and of itself, usage doesn’t constitute proof—because bad ideas can of course be put into practice too. In the 1980s, for instance, something called Business Process Reengineering was implemented across the corporate landscape, to the general detriment of many of the companies that were touched by it.

As eventually happened with that trend, though, Darwinian selection processes tend to weed out the bad ideas or—as in the case of germ theory—the people who subscribe to them. For that reason, it should count in favor of reframing if the method continues to be used by practitioners, especially over longer periods of time—and that this usage occurs in a wide array of different fields.

In the following, I have provided an overview of some key fields and disciplines in which some version of reframing is habitually practiced and treated as a crucial tool. I have focused primarily on those fields in which reframing is openly recognized and practiced as something separate from problem analysis, even if the discipline in question may not use the term reframing for this activity.

Design

Inspired by the work of Stanford’s d.school, generally considered the epicenter of the design thinking movement, most design agencies now use some formal process for problem exploration and reframing, typically as the first step in their models. Current models typically place great emphasis on some kind of anthropological immersion in the lives of the intended users, e.g. via user journeys and similar.

IDEO founders David Kelley and Tom Kelley have fleshed out a number of practices for identifying and reframing consumer needs. A classic example is the insight that when designing a product, you should focus on the activity, not the object: if designing a better phone, don’t focus on the phone itself, focus on the act of phoning.

Another recent contribution worth mentioning is the double diamond model developed by the British Design Council in 2005. That model explicitly separates problem finding and solution finding, pointing out that you need to engage in divergent thinking in both phases.

Advertising

Ever since the advertising executive Alex Osborn popularized the concept of brainstorming in the 1960s, ad agencies have relied on reframing to develop new creative concepts.

The central vehicle for this is the ‘brief’, a document prepared by the client-facing team (often the planners) that provides the creative team with the directions they need to come up with ideas. While the industry generally retains the in-house distinction between ‘creatives’ and client-facing people, it’s widely acknowledged that much of the creative work behind good campaigns is actually done by the planners as they reframe the challenge provided by the client into something more useful for the brief.

Lean Startup: the (updated) Build-measure-learn cycle

The lean ‘build-measure-learn’ cycle provides an alternative to the old ‘waterfall’ development methods in which people assumed they already understood what customers wanted.

This may sound like an updated version of ‘trial and error’: build something, throw it out there, measure what happens, and learn from it. But as Stanford University’s Steve Blank emphasizes, the cycle doesn’t start with building. It starts with forming a hypothesis—i.e. a guess about who your customer is, what their problem is, or what they might pay for your product. The thing you then build—sometimes called the minimum viable product—is designed specifically to test that hypothesis. The MVP method is effectively a way to reframe problems through real-world interaction.

New product development

“People don’t buy quarter-inch drills; they buy quarter-inch holes”

– Theodore Levitt

In the realm of new product development within established companies, the most widely known tool for diagnosing problems is the jobs-to-be-done framework. Originally developed by Anthony W. Ulwick under the name ‘outcome-driven innovation,’ it was later popularized and expanded on by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor in their 2003 book The Innovator’s Solution (aside from Ulwick, the authors also credit Richard Pedi of Gage Foods for their work with the approach).

Central to the jobs-to-be-done framework is the recognition that customers aren’t buying products; they are hiring them to get a specific job done (or in this book’s language, to solve a specific problem). Christensen and Raynor refer to Theodore Levitt’s adage about quarter-inch drills, cited above, which is also the partial inspiration for my strategy “Rethink the goal” and the focus on understanding the higher-level goals. (Such goals might include hanging a picture => making a room look nicer => enjoying your home and impressing visitors with your taste).

The jobs-to-be-done theory also promotes reframing by pointing out that customers typically have more than one type of need they want to fulfill (hence the plural ‘jobs’.) The framework posits three different needs: social, emotional and functional, an example of what you might call ‘labeled’ reframing.

Management consulting

It’s nearly impossible to find a major management consultancy that doesn’t recognize and emphasize the importance of reframing, especially in the work to solve client problems (and equally, in the work to manage their clients). One published example of this is provided by former McKinsey consultants Charles Conn and Robert McLean in their book Bulletproof Problem Solving.

Strategy

Problem diagnosis—and in particular problem discovery—also crops up in the strategy field. A notable contribution is W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne’s concept of Blue Ocean Strategy, a framework that emphasized the power of finding new, hitherto overlooked parameters to compete on, doing for strategy what the jobs-to-be-done framework does for individual products. An obvious example is ride-hailing apps, a service that removed many of the pain points of using existing taxis (even as they arguably also introduced new problems for drivers).

Coaching and therapy

Coaches, therapists, and other professional counselors consider reframing a necessary and potent tool in their arsenal as they work to help clients with their problems.

In the therapeutic tradition, reframing has focused less on changing the world actively, and more on bringing clients peace by making them accept something they cannot control—e.g. events that happened in the past. Such approaches can be powerful when people’s mental states are indeed the biggest problem preventing them from functioning better. The coaching tradition has also put emphasis on the importance of self-limiting beliefs.

One important contributor in this space was the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986) who highlighted the interconnectedness between the answers we seek and the problems or questions we pose. Another is David Cooperrider, one of the founders of the Appreciative Inquiry approach.

Sales and neuro-linguistic programming

The list of reframing practitioners would not be complete without a mention of neuro-linguistic programming, a rather dubious pseudo-scientific practice formed in the 1970s that has none the less gained many adherents, particularly in the fields of sales and personal development.

For personal development, neuro-linguistic programming has some similarities to coaching, only with a significantly more tenuous relationship to the scientific method (and, occasionally, ethics). The use of NLP in sales, on the other hand, has focused more on manipulating other people: a typical guide offers up a host of reframing techniques that salespeople can use, like verbal jujitsu, to override a potential buyer’s concerns or objections.

With these reservations in mind, I believe the more benign offshoots of the method do deserve a measure of credit (and by more benign, I mean the ones that don’t think ‘covert hypnosis’ is an acceptable way of closing a sale). For one, many professional sales people seem to find their methods useful. Second, the field deserves recognition for its ability to reach and engage people in ways that traditional science rarely manages to do. On that front at least, I believe the mainstream scientific community may have something important to learn from the world of pseudoscience.

III. Scientific studies

The final category of evidence consists of scientific studies of reframing, conducted over the last 50 years. In particular, a group of researchers within the field of creativity studies have created an important body of scholarship around the topic. An incomplete list of the main figures would include, in random order, Mark Runco, Michael Mumford, Roni Reiter-Palmon, Min Basadur, Robert Sternberg, Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihályi.

In the following, I have provided an overview of the key studies and their conclusions. For a fuller overview, I recommend Reiter-Palmon and Robinson (2009) and Abdulla, Paek, Cramond, and Runco (2018).

Creativity training works

No matter the method, any scientific review of creativity training should start with a 2004 paper called “The Effectiveness of Creativity Training: A Quantitative Review,” a metastudy by Ginamarie Scott, Lyle E. Leritz, and Michael D. Mumford. While scientists will tell you that no knowledge is 100 percent certain, metastudies come close; they’re the gold standard of evidence in the scientific community. In this one, the researchers ask: does creativity training actually work?

They found that, yes, creativity training works—which should comfort both members and clients of the innovation industry. An important subsidiary finding was that realistic training methods—that is, training people on problems similar to those they face at work—outperform more artistically oriented training methods (think finger-painting exercises).

…and reframing training works, too

Significantly, the metastudy also considered reframing. Looking at the subset of studies that had examined the role of problem finding, the authors concluded that training which focused on reframing was related to both better training outcomes and creative performance. This has been found for business people (Fontenot, 1993), for artists at all levels of competence (Kay, 1991), and for 12 to 13 year old children (Baer, 1988).

Reframing predicts the career success of artists

Within the research community, the empirical study that put problem finding on the map was published in 1971 by Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihályi. In the study, 31 art students were asked to do a drawing, using various objects as motifs.

As the art students worked, Csikszentmihályi and Getzels closely tracked their behavior, seeing how much the students engaged in discovery-oriented behaviors. Some accepted the task as is and got straight to work: they quickly picked an object or two—typically the same ones—plonked them down on the table, did a quick outline, and then spent most of their energy on doing a good job filling out the details.

Others tended to explore the challenge they had been given. They touched a bigger number of objects before deciding which ones to draw. They engaged with those objects more: sniffing them, tossing them up into the air, taking them over to the window to see them in a different light. They chose more unusual objects compared to the others. And once they started drawing, they didn’t immediately settle on an idea, but instead let the drawing develop as they worked.

The difference between the two groups turned out to be dramatic. The judges (who didn’t see the process) found that the students who engaged in problem finding produced more artistic drawings.

And, the results correlated with the artists’ career success: three years later, many of the less problem-focused students had either dropped out or were barely scraping by. The more problem-oriented thinkers, in contrast, were generally doing well, and one had already had a painting accepted into a permanent art collection. The difference still held when Csikszentmihalyi did a follow-up study 18 years later. (See Getzels & Csikszentmihályi, 1975 and 1976; and Csikszentmihályi, 1990).

Acclaimed scientists reframe more than their peers

In a 1994 paper, Susan M. Rostan expanded the research to cover the field of science as well by studying critically acclaimed artists and scientists. She found that the top achievers in both domains spent more time on problem identification compared to peers who were merely considered competent (Rostan, 1994).

…as does experts in political science

A similar result was found for experts in political science: when given a problem, experts spent more time thinking about the problem compared to novices. (Voss, Wolfe, Lawrence, and Engle, 1991).

…and expert designers

The design scholar Kees Dorst conducted several studies of expert designers and their work processes; again, the finding was that they relied strongly on reframing strategies (Dorst and Cross, 2001; Dorst, 2011).

Reframing is different from general intelligence

A 1984 study by Jonathan Smilansky indicated that the ability to construct new problems is different from intelligence; people can be smart, yet bad at coming up with new problems.

Smilansky’s study used a metric called Raven Progressive Matrices, a standard tool within intelligence research. His measure of problem construction ability focused only on creating new problems for the tool, so it’s not certain how much his findings can be generalized to real-world problems. However, later studies found the same thing—including some that looked at people’s performance on real-world problems (Mumford et al., 1997; Abdulla, Paek, Cramond, and Runco, 2018).

For kids, reframing predicts creativity better than idea generation

One traditional and widely used measure of creativity is what’s called divergent thinking skills, that is, your ability to generate original, useful ideas, typically assessed by questions like ‘how many different uses can you find for a brick?’ (The leading metric is the so-called Torrance test, after the early creativity scholar Ellis Paul Torrance (1915-2003). However, in a 1991 study, three researchers found that problem finding is an even better predictor of children’s creative accomplishments (Okuda, Runco and Berger 1991).

Reframing is correlated with real-world problem solving skills

In two studies from 1997 and 1998, Roni Reiter-Palmon, Michael Mumford and their colleagues found that people’s ability to reframe—they used the term problem construction ability—was correlated with the ability to solve various real-world problems, measured both on quality and originality (Reiter-Palmon et al, 1997, 1998). A similar finding, also studying real-world problems, was made by Mumford and another team of researchers (Mumford et al., 1997).

Explicitly asking people to reframe makes them more creative

Michael Mumford and others have argued that the initial framing of a problem typically occurs automatically—and thus, that people are not aware of how the framing influences them. However, this can be reversed. Mumford and his colleagues found that if you actively remind people of the framing effect, they will come up with more creative solutions compared to a group that aren’t reminded about it (Mumford et al., 1997).

Reframing training carries over into real-world jobs

In a field study of employees from a large consumer goods company, comprising engineers, managers and technicians, the researcher Min Basadur and his colleagues split the participants into three groups. One group went through a 2-day training program in reframing and other creative problem solving methods. The second group received a type of ‘placebo’ training, and the third group received no training at all.

Two weeks after the intervention, Basadur and his colleagues assessed how the actual job performance of the three groups had been affected, using self-reports as well as on-the-job observations from peers and supervisors. The result: people in the first group were less likely to jump to conclusions, were more open to new ideas, developed more explanations for problems, and were more likely to identify and test creative approaches to their problems (Basadur, Graen and Green, 1982). A later study, conducted on 109 managers and professionals from 19 organizations, found a similar effect (Ellspermann, Evans, and Basadur, 2007).

Reframing may help diverse teams perform better

Though most reframing research focuses on individuals, one in-depth paper on team cognition suggested that diverse teams tend to frame problems differently, without being aware of it—and that this effect may be a barrier to effective performance in diverse teams, compared to non-diverse teams (which tend to frame problems more similarly). The study suggests that by actively teaching teams to reframe, they can better navigate that barrier and thereby become more effective (Reiter-Palmon, Herman, and Yammarino, 2008; see also Cronin and Weingart, 2007).

Reframing makes people better at coping

David K. Carson and Mark A. Runco found in one study that young adults who are good at reframing tend to cope better with stressful life events (Carson and Runco, 1999). Another study by Cynthia Wang, Adam Galinsky and their colleagues discussed a similar effect for women and minorities, showing how the act of reframing personal traits or situations can lead to better performance, e.g. in negotiations (Wang et al., 2017).

And finally: A meta-review of reframing

In 2018, four researchers—Ahmed M. Abdulla, Sue Hyeon Paek, Bonnie Cramond, and Mark A. Runco—published a so-called meta-analytic review of the entire English-language body of research on reframing and its relation to creativity. In the review, they used the term problem finding as an umbrella term for all the various labels researchers have used (which, they found, all measure the same thing). They looked at unpublished studies too in order to mitigate publication bias (meaning the tendency to publish only positive findings).

Their main finding was that there is a significant positive relationship between problem finding and creativity, and that the relationship was as strong as that of divergent thinking skills (i.e. idea generation). They also confirmed Smilansky’s 1984 finding that while intelligence matters for creativity, problem finding is more important than intelligence.

Finally, they offered a thought-provoking observation: given their equal importance, problem finding is vastly underexplored compared to idea generation. The contrast is stark: depending on the field, for every paper on problem finding, there are between 6 and 100 times as many papers on idea generation.

It’s a disparity I find mirrored in the popular focus on creativity and innovation, from the books we publish to the training we offer in our workplaces. In that respect, too, it is my hope that my book will make a difference.

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“You should recommend “What’s Your Problem?”to everyone you know”

Attributed* to Einstein, Gandhi, Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa, and Queen Elizabeth I, plus also Elon Musk

*Specifically, I attributed it to them, just now.