Reframing the elevator problem

I came across this example in an interesting article on problem reframing on HBR.

Imagine this: You are the owner of an office building, and your tenants are complaining about the elevator. It’s old and slow, and they have to wait a lot. Several tenants are threatening to break their leases if you don’t fix the problem.

When asked, most people quickly identify some solutions: replace the lift, install a stronger motor, or perhaps upgrade the algorithm that runs the lift. These suggestions fall into what I call a solution space: a cluster of solutions that share assumptions about what the problem is—in this case, that the elevator is slow. This framing is illustrated below.

However, when the problem is presented to building managers, they suggest a much more elegant solution: Put up mirrors next to the elevator. This simple measure has proved wonderfully effective in reducing complaints, because people tend to lose track of time when given something utterly fascinating to look at—namely, themselves.

The mirror solution is particularly interesting because in fact it is not a solution to the stated problem: It doesn’t make the elevator faster. Instead it proposes a different understanding of the problem.

I was guilty of missing an opportunity to define a problem right recently. The challenge with skipping past this step – even in cases when it feels like the problem might be obvious – is that we lose the opportunity to reframe the problem.

That in turn means we miss a bevy of possible solutions – like putting up mirrors! – we’d never consider otherwise.