How reframing can help you solve a different problem to get a better outcome

Fifteen years ago, I worked with doctors who believed they didn’t need as much sleep as the next person. 

We engaged a university, involved the doctors in action-based research and tracked their sleep patterns. The study proved they were not physiologically different from the rest of the community.  

That was the easy part. 

The hard part was changing work practices and expectations about how doctors work and take breaks to keep patients safe. 

We had to continually zig and zag as new challenges and barriers confronted us.  

Eventually, we could see a positive shift compared to the previous twelve months. 

We learned the importance of stepping off the path you’re on and shifting how you look at problems.

In his Harvard Business Review article, Are you Solving the Right Problems?, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg proposes that instead of focusing on solutions underpinned by assumptions about what the problem is, we should experiment with reframing the problem 

One of the examples he shared involved Downtown Dog Rescue in LA. They reframed how they looked at the lack of people adopting the dogs in their shelter. Instead of seeking to have more pets adopted, they focused on why dogs were entering shelters in the first place.  

When the problem was reframed from ‘people give up their dogs because they are heartless’ to ‘people give up their dogs because of poverty’ they came up with different solutions and discovered 75% of people experiencing poverty-related barriers wanted to keep their pets when offered help. 

When I look back at the Alert Doctors project, I realise we implemented several of Wedell-Wedellsborg’s recommended reframing practices.

We involved well-known and respected doctors in action research. We created legitimacy by strapping monitors to the wrists of doctors that other doctors trusted. We permitted those doctors to be curious and invite other people to share their experiences.

The research was facilitated by world-renowned sleep experts who could span the boundary into a high-pressure health context because of their previous experience with the military.  

Medical Administrators could speak freely because their jobs were not at risk. However, the external experts stopped them from getting stuck in old ways by stimulating them to think differently. 

We stayed curious about what would motivate doctors to feel they could take a break from work.

A big breakthrough came when we realised the problem was not about sleep. It was about how doctors’ commitment to their patients often overrode their other needs and desires, like spending time with their family and friends.  

Reframing the problem made doctors feel less like they were the problem and allowed everyone to focus on removing barriers that prevented them from living a more well-rounded life. 

As Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg says, ‘You won’t know which problems can benefit from being reframed until you try’.  

Reframing problems is like looking at a Rubik’s Cube from a different angle. It is still the same cube, but that new perspective might just be what you need to come up with different solutions. 

The next time you find yourself on a straight, narrow path trying to address a complex and ambiguous problem, get ready to start zigging and zagging.  

Revisit the problem you’re trying to solve and explore whether solving a different problem will get you a better outcome.

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