What is problem framing?

what is problem framing?

What is problem framing?

Einstein is alleged to have said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

You might think that life is all about finding innovative solutions. But that’s only half the battle. The other (and arguably more important) half? Properly framing the problem you’re trying to solve.

So let’s dive into what problem framing means, why it’s so vital, and how you can master this underrated entrepreneurial superpower.

At its core, problem framing is all about deciding precisely what question you’re trying to answer or what obstacle you’re trying to overcome. It means taking a step back to clearly articulate the key issue before diving into solution mode.

Here’s an analogy that might help: Let’s say you’re trying to get from San Francisco to New York as quickly as possible. Poor problem framing would be: “How can I drive this distance in the shortest amount of time?” Because as soon as you frame it that way, you’ve arbitrarily constrained yourself to road-based solutions.

Proper framing of this problem might be: “What is the fastest way for me to travel from San Francisco to New York?” This opens up the solution space to possibilities like flying (which turns out to be much faster than driving).

Why Problem Framing Matters

Framing defines the boundaries of possible solutions. Frame a problem too narrowly, and you may completely miss the best answer. Frame it too broadly, and you’ll have a hard time making any meaningful progress.

Poor framing often means optimizing for the wrong thing entirely. This is a huge reason why startups fail – they spend years diligently solving the wrong problem. Proper framing helps ensure you’re working on what matters most.

Concretely, good problem framing leads to:

  • Developing a laser-focused product strategy
  • Prioritizing what to build (and what not to build)
  • Making smart trade-offs and decisions
  • Aligning your entire team around the real goals

It also forces you to deeply understand the motivations and pain points of your users or customers. This cultivated empathy is incredibly valuable for building things people actually want.

Examples of Good & Bad Framing

To make this more concrete, let’s look at some examples of good and bad problem framing:

Bad Framing: “How can we make project management software?”
Good Framing: “How can we help teams collaborate more efficiently on tasks and projects?”

Bad Framing: “How can we build a better video streaming platform?”
Good Framing: “How can we make it dramatically easier to watch video content people will enjoy?”

Bad Framing: “How can our startup make the best accounting tools?”
Good Framing: “How can we reduce the stress and effort required to keep books for a small business?”

See the differences? The good framings are focused on the higher-level desire or core struggle the customer faces. The bad framings are prematurely narrow and focused on a specific solution rather than the underlying problem.

Gather Critical Context Through P.I.U.T.

Before attempting to frame a problem, it’s crucial to have the right context and facts surrounding the situation. One systematic way to collect this information upfront is through the P.I.U.T. framework:

P – Problem: What is the apparent problem or obstacle? Define it objectively and without premature judgments.

I – Importance: How serious or impactful is this problem? Quantify it in terms of metrics like costs, safety risks, strategic importance, customer impact, etc.

U – Urgency: How quickly does the problem need to be addressed? Is it causing compounding issues that grow worse over time?

T – Tendency/Frequency: How often does the problematic issue occur? Is it a one-off event that happens sporadically or is an ongoing persistent challenge? Is it getting better or worse over time?

Gathering data on these four dimensions provides a robust foundation for properly framing and scoping the problem. For example:

P: Our biggest customers are not renewing their annual contracts at a high enough rate. I: This issue impacts 25% of our revenue and could jeopardize future growth plans. U: We need to course-correct within the next 2 quarters before hitting budget shortfalls. T: Customer churn has increased by 15% year-over-year for the last 3 years.

With this multi-faceted context, you could accurately frame the core problem as:

“How can we provide enough additional value to reverse the multi-year trend of our top customers defecting to competitors?”

Without first gathering the P.I.U.T. details, you may have incorrectly framed it as just a temporary sales execution issue or only focused on churn numbers instead of the strategic threat.

How to Get Better at Framing

Framing problems well is a critical skill, but one that’s rarely taught. Fortunately, it’s something you can actively practice and improve at:

  1. Seek to deeply understand your users. Spend as much time as possible listening to their frustrations, desires, and mental models. Avoid projecting your assumptions onto their experiences.
  2. “Why?” Five Times. When you first identify an issue, keep asking yourself “Why is this a problem? Why does this matter?” Don’t stop until you get to the root motivation.
  3. Reverse the Problem. Try reframing issues this way: “How can we prevent/avoid [the struggle] from happening in the first place?”
  4. Challenge Constraints. Question every limitation and assumption in your initial framing. What if you remove those blinders? Does it change things?
  5. Practice Framing. Explicitly frame problems for every aspect of your business. Do this over and over across different domains.

Rephrasing a problem

You can also try rephrasing the problem using different verbs (e.g. “attract” instead of “recruit”), broadening or narrowing your view, and changing perspectives.

Original Problem: “How can we increase sales of our new software product?”

Rephrased: “How can we help more customers solve X problem better than existing solutions?”

The rephrased version focuses on the underlying customer need and motivation, rather than just increasing sales. This opens up solutions beyond just marketing/sales tactics.

Original Problem: “How can we reduce employee turnover?”

Rephrased: “How can we build a workplace that attracts and retains top talent long-term?”

Changing “reduce turnover” to “attracts” and “retains talent” is a more positive framing focused on the desired outcome rather than the symptom.


The SCAMPER checklist is another useful tool:

  • Substitute: Could I substitute something in place of an existing element?
  • Combine: Could I combine two or more elements to create something more useful?
  • Adapt: Which parts could be adapted to resolve the problem?
  • Modify: Could I magnify or minify some aspect?
  • Put to other uses: Could I use aspects of the problem elsewhere?
  • Eliminate: Could I remove some parts to make it work better?
  • Rearrange: Could I do parts in a different sequence or reverse it?

Let’s take the problem: “Our customer support response times are too slow, leading to poor satisfaction.”

  • Substitute: Instead of email/phone, could we substitute a chatbot or automated Assistant for certain inquiries?
  • Combine: Could we combine self-service FAQ resources with human follow-ups to handle more volume?
  • Adapt: Could we adapt processes from our sales team’s efficient workflow practices?
  • Modify: What if we temporarily doubled our support staffing during peak hours? Or set maximum response time targets?
  • Put to other uses: Could our CRM data help predict high support load periods to staff ahead?
  • Eliminate: Do we need to eliminate any unnecessary steps/approvals from the existing process?
  • Rearrange: Instead of a single queue, could we rearrange by prioritizing different issue types?

Systematically working through SCAMPER sparks ideas that reframe and redefine the problem beyond just “be faster.”

Key Takeaways

  • Problem framing means clearly defining the obstacle or question you’re addressing before considering solutions.
  • Framing problems well is the key to solving what matters (and not wasting time on the wrong things).
  • Examples of good framing focus on the deeper “why” and customer motivation.
  • Getting better requires techniques like regularly questioning assumptions and avoiding premature constraints.
  • Make explicit problem framing a regular part of your startup’s processes and meetings.

Poor framing may seem like a minor issue, but it’s one of the highest-impact levers for problem-solving and decision-making success. Companies live and die by how well they define the problems they choose to tackle.


Q: Isn’t this just semantics? Aren’t frameworks more important than framing?

A: Not at all. How you initially articulate a problem has profound downstream impacts on your strategy, roadmap, and entire business. Framing defines the boundaries of possible solutions you’ll even consider. That’s arguably the highest-leverage aspect of any startup’s approach.

Q: This seems like a lot of upfront work. Shouldn’t I just start building as quickly as possible?

A: You’d be surprised how much time is wasted down the road by skipping this crucial step. A few weeks of framing things appropriately upfront can save years of potential wasted effort and wrong turns later. As the old saying goes, “Every minute spent framing saves an hour down the road.”

Q: How can I get better at framing if I’m just starting out?

A: The best way is to consciously practice this muscle regularly. Explicitly frame problems for every aspect of your work – big or small. Have everyone on your team do this as well in meetings. You’ll quickly get better through repetition and developing the habit of always taking this step.

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