During the Vietnam War, a company of about 200 U.S. Marines was stationed at an airbase where the Viet Cong was managing to fire rockets at them from a primitive area every few days. No one had been able to stop their assaults, and the platoon’s commanders lacked training to deal with this unique situation. The company commander assembled an intelligence officer, the forward air controller, the liaison officer from artillery support and a couple other
key people to discuss the problem.
Through their conversations, they learned the Viet Cong didn’t launch rockets during the daytime or when there was a full moon. The team hypothesized that if they had 24 hours of light, they could stop the attacks. They charted the daylight and the moon’s phases and leveraged all of the resources they had at their disposal to illuminate the base.
The team also learned that to fire the rockets, the Viet Cong required a flat piece of ground measuring about 20 feet by 20 feet that was relatively free of brush or trees and not in a rice paddy. They mapped the region to note any places that fit this description.
Instead of trying to solve the problem by finding the agile Viet Cong and attempting to stop their mobile rockets, the platoon reframed the problem and sought ways to provide light that would prevent the attacks and limit access to the only spots suitable for launches. Patrols monitored flat areas or fired a mortar or artillery on them every 15 to 20 minutes so the enemy wouldn’t have time to set up the rockets. They also devised a way for their operating area to never be dark for more than 10 minutes. The solutions worked and the platoon went more than three months without being fired upon.
While the term “problem reframing” wasn’t used during the Vietnam War, this is an early example of applying this approach to solve a complex military challenge.
The Definition of Problem Reframing
Reframing a problem is the process of looking at the same problem from a different perspective. The technique has roots in psychology to help people deal with their emotions and is also a fundamental aspect of design thinking that helps problem-solvers come up with innovative solutions. Essentially, reframing a problem helps you ask the right questions, so you seek out answers that are impactful and effective for addressing a problem.
Why Do We Need Problem Reframing?
Oftentimes when we are presented with a problem, our natural inclination is to jump immediately into finding a solution. But that knee-jerk reaction can sometimes lead a problem-solver down a path that won’t result in the desired outcome. Reframing requires hitting the pause button to make time to truly identify the problem that needs to be solved. To get started, aim to accurately identify these three elements:
- The goal
- The current state
- What is causing the gap between the goal and the current state.
For complex problems or situations, this process can help you focus on issues that are solvable and within your control. Reframing encourages you to shift your perspective to be more empowered to act – and hopefully to learn at the same time.
How to R.E.F.R.A.M.E. a Problem
There are seven steps to take to reframe a problem and using the acronym R.E.F.R.A.M.E. makes it easy to remember them.
Rethink the Question
Ask about the driving goal and what the measurement of success will be.
Engage the Right People
Invite a variety of perspectives by consulting relevant stakeholders.
Focus on the “Why”
Get to the heart of the matter to ensure your solution has impact.
Reshape the Problem
Rephrase the original problem and point out any obstacles that are knowledge-based, skills- based or completely outside of your control.
Ditch the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude to find new ways of thinking.
Make Lots of Bad Ideas
Brainstorm individually first and stress quantity to get ideas flowing.
Explore Potential Solutions
Reconvene as a group to share ideas and determine the best course of action forward.
Tips for Problem Reframing
When reframing a problem, ask yourself these questions.
- Is this the right problem to solve?
- What’s missing from the current problem statement?
- Are there elements we are not considering?
- Is there anything outside the current frame we are not paying attention to?
- Am I aware of my cognitive biases so I can look at nonobvious things?
Reframing generates more options and how you reframe will determine which solution you come up with. Techniques of reframing can also be used to cultivate creative and critical thinking skills.
If you’re interested in learning more about reframing training to help your teams find better ways to solve complex problems, check out the virtual programs from the Institute for Defense and Business or inquire about custom solutions for your organization.
The Institute for Defense and Business (IDB) delivers educational programs and research to teach, challenge and inspire leaders who work with and within the defense enterprise to achieve next-level results for their organization. IDB features curriculum in Logistics, Supply Chain and Life Cycle Management, Complex Industrial Leadership, Strategic Studies, Global Business and Defense Studies, Continuous Process Improvement, and Stabilization and Economic Reconstruction. Visit www.IDB.org or contact us on our website for more information.