Idea in Brief

The Problem

Research shows that most companies devote too little effort to examining problems from all angles before trying to solve them. That limits their ability to come up with innovative ways to address them.

The Solution

Companies need a structured approach for understanding and defining complex problems to uncover new insights and generate fresh ideas.

The Approach

This article introduces a five-phase approach to problem-framing: In the expand phase, the team identifies all aspects of a problem; in examine, it dives into root causes; in empathize, it considers key stakeholders’ perspectives; in elevate, it puts the problem into a broader context; and in envision, it creates a road map toward the desired outcome.

When business leaders confront complex problems, there’s a powerful impulse to dive right into “solving” mode: You gather a team and then identify potential solutions. That’s fine for challenges you’ve faced before or when proven methods yield good results. But what happens when a new type of problem arises or aspects of a familiar one shift substantially? Or if you’re not exactly sure what the problem is?

A version of this article appeared in the January–February 2024 issue of Harvard Business Review.