The Importance of Framing the Problem

Not enough attention is paid to how we frame and approach problems. There are two common mistakes.

The Importance of Framing the Problem
Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen / Unsplash

Not enough attention is paid to how we frame and approach problems. I’ve seen two common mistakes:

1. We don’t frame the problem well

Entrepreneurs often make the mistake of framing the problem they’re tackling too broadly because they feel pressure for their work to be grandiose and panacean. In saying they are “solving climate change” or “effecting systems-change” or “eliminating [insert bad thing],” they mistake the mission they're on with the problem they're solving. There are risks with being stuck at too high a level of problem-framing: it leads to a thin understanding of the actual problem, an unclear relationship between solution and problem, and a poor use of metrics to measure progress. Better framing leads to more specific problems which leads to more pinpointed solutions.

2. We match the wrong solution with the problem

There are times when I've been surprised by the disconnect between the stated problem and an entrepreneur's proposed solution (you're trying to solve a systems change problem with an app? You think this financial literacy course can create financial freedom for people making a minimum wage?) This tendency to mismatch problem and solution might suggest ignorance, naivete, or hubris, but it could also mean that entrepreneurs simply are choosing the solutions they’re already most familiar with. What kind of economic justice solution should we expect from someone who has built a career teaching financial literacy? What kind of systems-change approach should we expect from someone who is an app developer? What kind of solution to homelessness should we expect from a VC who has invested in technology startups? For the person who has been trained to wield a hammer, it’s easy to believe that every problem is full of nails needing to be hammered.

We often advise our entrepreneurs to “fall in love and start with the problem," but the best predictor of the type of solution that someone will come up with is the type of solution they are already most familiar with. Maybe they’re falling in love with the problem, but they’ve already chosen their solution. Therefore, we have two options:

  1. Start with the solution and back into the problem: Instead of starting with the problem, we start with the solution-set we are most skilled at and go hunting for a problem until we find a match. This is an asset-based approach. Double down on what you’re good at. Stick to your lane and be willing to frame problems at a narrow, specific level.
  2. Start with the problem but be ready for an existential flex: Chase the problem until it demands that you reinvent yourself (an example here is Netflix transforming itself from a DVD delivery business to an online streaming one). This is a market-based approach where you let the market mold you. The risk here is that you might not be the best person or you might be lacking the skills to truly solve the problem. Humility is needed.

Too many entrepreneurs don't have the courage or the honesty to choose one of these options: they either force their solution onto a problem, or they aren't willing to accept that the problem requires them to let go of their existing theories and be transformed.