Problem Framing: Why team effectiveness depends on it, and how to get it rightFeatured

Team effectiveness is more important than ever. Over the past several years, workplaces have become increasingly collaborative. Today’s teams are more diverse and spread out geographically, and according to Global Workplace Analytics, remote work has grown 216% since 2005—over 11 times faster than the rest of the workforce. The pandemic has only accelerated virtual and asynchronous teamwork.

These dynamics make collaboration and team effectiveness more difficult to achieve. Luckily, teams can turn to a number of team effectiveness models for guidance. These models tend to focus on the mechanics of operating as a team. Each one offers its own unique spin, but for the most part, all models highlight common themes like fostering trust, maintaining accountability, establishing a robust structure, and ensuring alignment, to name a few.

But rather than focus on how a team functions, I’d like to look at team effectiveness through the lens of what a team is working on.

The Problem Framing challenge

Has your team ever been asked to work on something, and you think to yourself something along the lines of, I don’t even know where we should start, or There are so many different ways to think about this issue and I’m not sure which one is right?

This is the Problem Framing challenge.

Problem Framing can make or break your team’s ability to perform. Here are some of the ways Problem Framing can go wrong and how it can impact your team.

  1. Too broad: Your team has taken on massive scope that is disproportionate to the team’s capacity—think ‘boiling the ocean’.
  2. How this can impact your team’s work: trouble aligning on goals; gaps in your workstreams; unrealistic timelines; work product likely to fall short of expectations.
  3. Your team may feel: overwhelmed; demoralized.
  4. Too narrow: Your team has zeroed in on a sliver of a complex issue without regard for other (important) aspects of that issue.
  5. How this can impact your team’s work: solution may work in a vacuum but isn’t functional ‘in the wild’; solution fails to address an underlying or root cause issue.
  6. Your team may feel: unchallenged; disengaged; disappointed with the result.
  7. Ill-suited to team’s skills: Your team doesn’t have the expertise or experience that are central to developing a solution.
  8. How this can impact your team’s work: floundering; inefficiency; underperformance; poor work product.
  9. Your team may feel: loss of confidence; insecure.
  10. Poorly defined: Your team knows the general issue they’re working on, but specificity is lacking.
  11. How this can impact your team’s work: both overlapping and disconnected workstreams; unfocused efforts; inability to identify and complete milestones.
  12. Your team may feel: frustrated; directionless; disempowered.

In all of the above scenarios, your team’s reputation is also at risk. Poor Problem Framing can mean chronic underperformance, and colleagues and adjacent teams may lose faith in your team. This tends to kick off a chain of critical feedback cycles, eventually draining your team’s morale—which in turn can result in lack of productivity or even talent loss.

The Problem Framing solution

So let’s explore how teams can get Problem Framing right and avoid these pitfalls. Below is a checklist for a flexible, 3-step approach that you can complete with your team. (If you have a large team, you may want to limit participation to leads or relevant experts so that discussion and idea exchange remain manageable.) You can customize it for your team or even use it as inspiration to develop a different approach that works for you.

PROBLEM FRAMING CHECKLIST

STEP 1

Define the Problem Space

  • To the best of your ability, write out what you think the problem you’re solving is, i.e., your problem statement.

Tips: This may be messy or disorganized to start, and that’s okay at this stage.

  • List the questions you’re asking yourselves as a team to solve that problem.

Tips: Can you break these questions down into smaller chunks?

  • Identify known challenges associated with answering each of the questions you listed.

Tips: Challenges may stem from internal or external sources.

STEP 2

(a) Project Brainstorm

  • Brainstorm projects that would help answer your list of questions from Step 1.

Tips: This is brainstorming, so think inclusively and openly (‘yes, and…’).

  • Of these potential projects, identify which ones you think your team should take on and list dependencies for each.

Tips: Take the time to articulate why your team is the right team for the job. Consider both internal and external dependencies.

(b) Understand

  • List additional information you need to understand in order to improve your responses in Step 1 or 2(a).

Tips: One tactic is to shape an ‘understand’ efforts around the challenges you listed in Step 1 and the dependencies you listed in Step 2(a).

  • Prioritize your ‘understand’ efforts. Divvy them up among your team and get them done!

Tips: The key is to keep this manageable. At this preliminary stage, ‘understand’ efforts should take anywhere from a few hours to no more than a couple weeks.

STEP 3

Frame the Problem

  • Reconvene with your draft problem statement, questions, and associated challenges from Step 1, and potential projects and ‘understand’ results from Step 2. Now refine your problem statement.

Tips: This time, be precise. Try to get the problem statement down to just a few sentences.

  • Refine the list of questions you’re asking yourselves as a team to solve the newly-drafted problem.

Tips: This will inform the projects your team ultimately takes on. But remember, the goal here is not to create a project plan; it’s to ensure you’ll be solving the right problem and asking the right questions.

  • Sketch out how you’ll know you’ve succeeded in answering your list of questions.

Tips: This can be quantitative if you have the data. But at this stage, it’s enough to be conceptual / descriptive.

Access a copy you can download here.

How do you know your team is done with Problem Framing? Here’s a test:

  1. Can you describe in a few short sentences:
  2. What specific question(s) is your team addressing, and why?
  3. How will you know your team has succeeded in addressing them?
  4. When you share the answers to these questions with someone outside your immediate team:
  5. Do they quickly grasp what you’ve said?
  6. Do they generally agree with your approach?

If you answer ‘no’ to any of the above, your team may have a bit more Problem Framing to do. And once you feel comfortable enough to move forward with shaping and executing the actual work, make it a goal to intermittently check that your Problem Framing stands up.

A few additional things to keep in mind: Your team may need to run through the Problem Framing cycle more than once, especially if the problem you’re solving is novel or particularly complex. It can also be helpful to identify which aspects of the problem your team won’t be working on; recording non-goals can help avoid scope creep. In addition, you may need to ‘gate’ your Problem Framing. In other words, the outcome of a first wave of problem solving may serve as a critical input to a second. Understanding these sorts of dependencies can help you avoid making elaborate plans that don’t make practical sense.

tanvishah's profile thumbnail
This is an awesome framework. Such a simple thing that is often overlooked. Thank you so much for sharing.
JaneHoffacker's profile thumbnail
Great framework! Thanks for sharing @MAPO