A better way to solve tough problems (review of What’s Your Problem?)

How would you solve the problem of too many dogs waiting to get adopted from your local animal shelter?

You could run pop-up adoption shops. Roll out a dog-of-the-week promo with your local newspaper and TV station. Revamp the shelter’s website, give the dogs their own Instagram account and launch a matchmaking mobile app that’s like Tinder for dogs.

problemOr you could reframe the problem from getting more dogs adopted to having fewer dogs put up for adoption. Downtown Dog Rescue did exactly that and gets a shout-out from innovation and problem-solving expert Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg in his new book What’s Your Problem? To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve.

The Los Angeles non-profit looked at the dogs in its shelter and realized it had a poverty problem.  Around a third of the dogs were being surrendered by owners. These owners weren’t irresponsible; they were caught in desperate financial straits and forced to make a hard decision. So the shelter created an intervention program that financially helps owners keep their dogs. The program saves owners from heartbreak and saves the shelter money, proving to be less costly than taking in dogs and putting them up for adoption.

“Sometimes, to solve a hard problem, you have to stop looking for solutions to it,” says Wedell-Wedellsborg. “The way you frame a problem determines which solutions you come up with. By shifting the way you see the problem, you can sometimes find radically better solutions.”

problem 5

To reframe a problem, test your initial understanding and underlying assumptions. What are you missing in looking at this problem? Is there a better goal or objective to pursue? What’s your role in creating the mess you’re in? How do other people perceive this problem? When and where is this not a problem and who’s already solved it? “Paying attention to positive exceptions can give you a new perspective on the problem and may even point you directly to a viable solution.”

Wedell-Wedellsborg calls reframing a fundamental skill we all need to learn. “Frankly, this is stuff that everyone should have been taught a long time ago. And it frightens me to consider how many mistakes are made every day because smart, talented people keep solving the wrong problems.”

So why aren’t we masters of reframing? We have a bias for action and an aversion to thinking before acting, even though reframing when done well is a quick detour that saves time, money and aggravation.

problem 4

We prefer to focus on problems that we’re already experts at solving. “Most people have a tendency to frame problems to match their own ‘hammer’, hewing to the tools or analytical perspectives they favour.”

We’re also guilty of falling in love with solutions that are in search of a problem.  “Sometimes, people have fallen in love with an idea – let’s do X! – with zero evidence that the solution they are dreaming of solves a real-world problem.”


Reputations can be built and fortunes made off tackling wicked problems and seemingly intractable global challenges. Yet our best way forward may come from learning how to reframe hard problems into far easier challenges to solve.

“What difference might it make to your life – to the people and the causes you care about – if everyone got just a little bit better at barking up the right trees? People who master reframing make better decisions, get more original ideas and tend to lead more remarkable lives.”

This review first ran in the March 14 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s