Research-Technology Management Vol 62.2 - Problem Framing

If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.

—Albert Einstein (attributed)


I worked in the mailing industry for several years. At one point, we began investing in innovation to create black fluorescent ink. Fluorescence in the traditional red postage mark on a mail piece is used by mail processing equipment to orient the mail so that its address can be read. The evolution toward postmarks with intelligence in the postal barcode demanded that the image be readable, as well. Readability requires contrast, which red ink did not provide, especially on some envelope types.

Making black fluorescent ink is a difficult technical problem. Black tends to quench fluorescence, so getting the two together is hard. But framing the problem in these terms greatly limited the range of solutions we initially considered. The underlying problem was orienting the mail. There were solutions using green filtering and stronger lighting; there were solutions based on modifications to the postal equipment; there were imaging solutions. Each of these had significant challenges, as well, but the framing of the problem defined the solution spaces we considered.

All of us tend to frame problems in the context of the tools that we are used to working with. Mechanical engineers seek mechanical solutions; chemists seek new chemical formulations; computer scientists seek new algorithms. In a similar way, product companies frame problems in product terms; technology companies frame things in terms of their technology; and analytics companies tend to frame things in terms of the data. This tendency, and the persistence of these frames, was reinforced for me when I first saw digital printing technology from Polaroid, before that company’s demise. The Polaroid magic was all in the paper: digital printers activated layers of the paper, which could produce different colors. It was beautiful—and entirely within the frame of Polaroid’s existing business. The framing of imaging in terms of the substrate on which the image was created was deeply embedded in Polaroid’s DNA, to the company’s detriment.

Problem framing is becoming both more fun and more important. It is more fun because there seem always to be so many new possibilities. New materials, new system-level solutions, and more powerful computing infrastructures are allowing old problems to be solved in entirely new ways.

Good framing is the key to successful open innovation as well. If a problem cannot be clearly articulated, then it cannot be solved by others. If it is not helpfully abstracted, then it will attract solvers within a narrow base of experts—and produce solutions you likely already know about. It is very different to run a contest for a black ink that fluoresces in the red range than for a solution for orienting mail.

One challenge, as hinted at by the apocryphal quote from Einstein, is to make the time to do the framing. We are too busy solving problems to understand them. Many of us also find it difficult to let go of a problem and share it with others who have different expertise. Or we glimpse a different way of looking at a problem but succumb to the dominant assumptions of our corporate setting. Reframing, in other words, requires us to get out of our own way. This can introduce its own challenges, some of which are discussed in this issue.

University–industry relations have been through many reframings, for example. Universities perform a significant portion of their research with funding from industry partners, but different universities frame this relationship differently. Some frame it as a funding mechanism, and they jealously guard the resulting intellectual property—behavior that can inhibit the very collaboration they seek. Others frame it as a way to give students real-world experience and thus do not pursue the same IP protections. On the other side of the relationship, different industry partners can frame the goals of a university partnership in different ways: as outsourcing exploratory R&D, as a way to attract students as potential hires, or as a channel for early information about emerging technologies. The industry partner’s frame defines what relationships it pursues and with whom. Increasingly, that frame includes assistance in developing technologies from the laboratory to the market. Donald P. McConnell and Stephen E. Cross, in “Realizing the Value of Industry-University Innovation Alliances,” discuss the shifting roles universities must take on as industry partners increasingly frame the university role to include commercialization.

Different ways of framing issues can also be at the root of interpersonal misunderstandings. Sara Thorgren and Elin Caiman explore how interpersonal relationships can affect an Agile implementation in “The Role of Psychological Safety in Implementing Agile Methods across Cultures.” Moving from traditional product development to Agile development requires a complete change in mindset and practices for most organizations. The shift is complicated in multinational companies, where differing cultural norms can result in miscommunication and confl ict as people make differing assumptions about the intentions of others from within their own frames of reference.

This issue’s Innovation C-Scape profi le provides an interesting, if extreme, example of the power of reframing problems. Pete Newell, former director of the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF), discusses his approach to quickly getting new solutions to the battlefi elds of Iraq and Afghanistan. Newell considers the challenge of innovation on the front lines in terms of the OODA loop popularized by Air Force Colonel John Boyd. The OODA loop—Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act—essentially defi nes the clock speed of innovation within a domain. In the context of the REF, it defi nes the pace at which combatants must respond to changes in the tactics of the enemy. A clock speed that is too much slower than that of the enemy results in casualties. For the REF and the soldiers it works for and with, rapid reframing is a matter of life and death.

Also noteworthy in this issue is our annual R&D Trends Survey, which has been conducted by IRI every year since 1984. The overall fi nding is that R&D leadership continues to be optimistic, a sentiment refl ected in expectations of increased budgets and hiring. The main area of increased focus is new business projects, with nearly two-thirds of respondents forecasting increased spending in that category. The survey also reports a continued trend toward greater collaboration, with the biggest increases expected in participation in R&D alliances, consortia, and contracts with academia. The success of these collaborations will depend in large measure on the ability of people to frame the work in compatible ways.

Here’s an exercise: try to consciously reframe something today. Look at the problem from a higher level of abstraction or through the eyes of another party. Seek to understand whether improvements in the technologies you are tracking will result in a better old thing or an entirely new thing. Will AI or blockchain or 3D printing improve your current business or radically change it? The answer will probably depend on how you frame the problem.


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