The Elevator Problem

In mid-20th century New York, occupants in an office building were unhappy with the elevator service. At peak hours of the day, wait times were incredibly long, and tenants were threatening to break their lease and move somewhere else. In response, the management team launched a full investigation to determine the best solution. Unfortunately, they were told, the age of the building made any engineering solution too expensive for justification. The problem simply could not be solved.

In a desperate attempt to keep his tenants happy, the building manager called an emergency meeting among the staff in hopes that someone had a suggestion to improve elevator performance. One recently hired young man, a graduate in personnel psychology, couldn’t understand the fuss over tenants waiting for just a few minutes.

“Why,” he asked, “are they complaining about just a few minutes wait?”

The only logical conclusion, in his mind, was that the tenants must have been growing bored during their wait time. And the young employee suggested a creative solution to that problem. Installing mirrors in the elevator boarding areas would allow people to look at themselves and those around them while they waited, hopefully occupying their time and keeping them happy.

With no other option, the manager took the suggestion. The mirrors were installed quickly, and at a meagre cost! And surprisingly, the complaints stopped. The solution was so groundbreaking and so innovative that surrounding buildings promptly followed suit. And today, elevator lobbies, waiting areas, and elevators themselves still have mirrors everywhere.

The Reframing Technique

Reframing, or having the ability to look at a problem from multiple different perspectives, is a powerful technique to have in your toolbox. While it may not provide the solution to every issue within your organisation, reframing is worth considering in most scenarios, even if it is to simply provide an opportunity for more creative solutions. When combined with the ‘Five Whys’ technique, I have found that reframing problems often provides a more straightforward path to a solution. The solutions revealed also tend to be more suitable or more efficient, mostly due to the additional time spent considering the problem.

The ‘Five Whys’
The Five Whys technique is an innovative problem-solving tool that asks the same question (Why?) over and over again to identify the root cause of that problem.

There have been several occasions when I’ve used reframing to achieve success, and surprisingly not always through the traditional process of forming a reframed problem and then working towards a solution. Instead, the distraction the process provided away from the original path of investigation, allowed for more creative thinking, resulting in a sort of ‘Aha’ moment where a solution presents itself to a reframed problem that you may not had even considered.

To understand this, consider a time when you have been struggling to find a solution to a particular problem or fixated on an ineffective solution, but then had a breakthrough during an unrelated activity which requires little cognitive focus, such as taking a shower or perhaps a long walk or jog. The science behind this phenomenon says that whilst the brain is focused, certain signals from parts of the brain we see as unrelated will be suppressed to allow strict concentration on the task at hand. However, when you step away from this task, the break of focus from the problem allows other parts of the brain to contribute towards a solution. This creates a path for more creative solutions to flow from the subconscious into the conscious mind. Harvard researcher Shelley H. Carson calls the break of focus the “incubation period”.

Person at desk computer struggling to solve problem. Person in shower having a breakthrough idea.

Mark Fenske, an associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Guelph, further explains that carrying out mundane tasks that require focus unrelated to the problem you’re facing, allows your brain to engage in more free association, which is critical for innovation.

If you think reframing could benefit the way your organisation approaches problems, consider following the seven practices outlined below to use the technique effectively. These practices have been derived from Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg’s Harvard Business Review article.

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Effective Problem Reframing in Seven Simple Steps

  1. Establish Legitimacy: Reframing problems shouldn’t be done alone. For that reason, it is crucial to establish the legitimacy of the method with those in your organisation. Share this blog post with them. Read the Harvard Business Review Article together. And, open with the elevator story. Make sure those around you understand that this is an accepted and trusted method to success.
  2. Discuss with Outsiders: The importance of perspective is embedded in the reframing method, relying on the ability to look at a problem from multiple different angles. One of the most helpful tips for naturally reframing a problem is to employ the opinion of people outside of the problem. Boundary spanners or people who “understand but are not fully part of your world” are the most helpful in this scenario.
  3. Get it in Writing: While everyone might verbally agree on a general framing of a problem, that doesn’t mean everything lines up identically in everyone’s mind. Getting everyone’s definition of the problem in writing is beneficial for each individual and the team as a whole. Try to gather these definitions before the discussion, if possible.
  4. Ask What’s Missing: If you want to examine a problem from all angles and viewpoints properly, you need every last detail. Instead of focusing on what has already been stated, try identifying components of the problem that are still missing.
  5. Consider Multiple Categories: For a simple gauge on what everyone thinks about the problem, try asking them how they would categorise it. For the most part, people are trained to look at a problem from a perspective in which they professionally specialise. A simple shift in the categorisation of the problem can make a solution more easily identifiable.
  6. Analyse Positive Exceptions: An excellent technique for helping to reframe a problem is to look to bright spots or times when the problem did not exist. What was different then? Focusing on positive exceptions can make the problem much less daunting. Knowing there was a time when the problem didn’t exist makes it easier to believe you can get there again.
  7. Question the Objective: Finally, pay close attention to the objective of each person involved in the problem. First, clarify that you truly understand what it is they’re trying to accomplish. Then, challenge that they truly understand what it is they’re hoping to achieve.

Want these steps in a handy checklist?
✅‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎Online version
✅‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎Download as PDF

Now reflect on the issues you are facing in your business and ask yourself: 'Are you solving the right problem?'