top of page

Problem framing & the elevator problem

The problem with problems

Customer problems, process problems, sales problems, marketing problems, operational problems, finance problems, growth problems, supply chain problems, employee problems, leadership problems. Business is a world of problems just waiting to be solved.

But solving the problem is not always the biggest challenge. Due to the complexities of the world we live in, I’d suggest that one of the biggest challenges in business today is the accurate diagnose a problems in the first place.

Problem framing is a skill to develop just as much as problem solving.

Else, if you don’t frame the problem correctly - how do you know if you are solving the right problem?

Peter Drucker, the famous Management Consultant once said:

“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions." (Peter Drucker, ‘Men, Ideas, & Politics’)

How right Pete is.

The Elevator Problem

I recently came across a very interesting “business parable” which illustrates the importance of framing problems effectively.

The parable goes something like this:

You are the owner of a tall office building. The tenants in the building are complaining about the elevator (or ‘lift’ if you are British!) that takes them up and down floors in the building from the main entrance lobby. They are moaning that after pressing the button to call the lift they have to wait too long. They say the elevator is too slow and too old. Some of them are threatening to move out unless you solve their problem.

Background image credit: Izhak Agency

Initial problem framing

Now when most of us face a situation like this we automatically (and quite reasonably) take the problem as it has been described by those who have reported the painful symptoms they are experiencing. We might frame it like this:

“The building elevator is too slow”.

We assume the problem is as reported.

From this impulsive framing we might then go on to consider a solution. For example we might imagine that the only way to solve for this is to invest in a new motor or even a new lift system altogether at great cost and expense.

But what if we framed the problem differently?

Problem reframing

After listening carefully to the tenants and by asking why this is frustrating, we might uncover the fact that it is the wait that is annoying the tenants.

With this in mind we could reframe the problem to the following statement:

“The waiting experience is annoying”.

From this reframing we might then go on to consider a different type of solution. We might ask: “How might we make the wait less annoying for tenants?”.

This could then lead onto us doing things like:

  • installing mirrors in the hallways so that tenants can fix their hair and make-up before stepping into the lift)

  • playing music so that tenants feel at ease

  • installing hand sanitiser or water dispensers next to each lift so tenants can clean their hands and hydrate

  • adding a fish tank outside the lifts so tenants have something interesting to look at

  • putting up a digital screen with the weather, latest traffic or tube / subway reports listed so tenants can review these before leaving

Now it is true that none of these solutions deal with the problem initially reported - that the elevator is too slow and old - but they do provide a cheaper set of suggestions which you might want to try to see if they elevate the pain of tenants and possibly save you quite a bit of money in the mean-time, whilst improving the tenants experience of your building.

Now don’t get me wrong, we’re not saying that the initial framing of the problem is “wrong”. Only that exploring the problem can give you more options to solving better problems. Problems can often be solved in multiple ways if we open our minds and try to get to the root causes and frustrations of the pain being felt.

Brands exist to solve customer problems. To do this you need to understand your customer and design your solutions and experiences around providing solutions for them. Asking the right questions and solving them in the best possible way is therefore crucial to brand building. It is all about asking the right questions and listening to the causes of the frustrations of those reporting the problem.

If you are wondering how to better understand problems, why not try Sakichi Toyoda’s 5 Why technique I’ve written about here »

So - the next time someone comes to you with a problem, listen harder. Ask why. Explore the problem. Frame it and reframe it and then work on the best strategic solution that works for your situation.


bottom of page