How To Innovate Better by Reframing Problems as Creative Questions



“A problem properly stated is half solved.” – John Dewey

How do you reframe a problem so you can solve it better?   You can do so by turning your toughest challenges into creative questions.

If you want creative solutions, you need to ask creative questions.

You can brainstorm solutions, but first you need to brainstorm the problem.

The act of generating creative questions, will help you clarify and redefine the problem.

And this will set the stage for generating creative ideas.

This will also save you time from working on the wrong problems.

But even better, the act of reframing problems as creative questions will unleash your creativity and turn impossible problems into solvable challenges.

In the book, Create in a Flash, Roger L. Firestien, PH.D. provides a great overview of reframing problems as creative questions.

Look Before You Leap

It’s great to want to jump in and solve problems.  Just remember to look before you leap. 

There’s no point in solving the wrong problems.

And there are plenty of problems more worthy of your time, energy, and attention.

Firestien writes:

“Leaders in organizations often loathe spending time clarifying the problem.  They want to leap to generating ideas.  Think about this.  It does absolutely no good to generate ideas for solving the wrong problem.  The problem we see is the problem we solve.  Invest the time identifying the true problem.”

How Einstein Would Solve a Problem that Threatened the World

Einstein would first spend the bulk of his time to clarify the problem, then focus on solving it.  He believed the key to solving a problem is defining it well.

Firestien writes:

“Albert Einstein was once asked, ‘if some imminent disaster threated the world and you only had one hour in which you knew you could save it, how would you spend your time?’

Einstein replied, ‘I would spend the first 55 minutes identifying the problem and the last five minutes solving for it.  For the formulation of a problem is often far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.’”

Why Reframe the Problem

The output of reframing the problem is the best problem to solve, expressed as a creative question.

In essence, when you reframe the problem you are reframing where you want to be, and how you might get there.

That’s it.

But by framing the problem in a new way, you can pivot perspectives, open new doors, and light imaginations on fire.

In the words of Thomas  Wedell-Wedellsborg:

“But perhaps, the purpose of reframing is not to find the ‘real’ problem, but to see if there is a better problem to solve.”

Reframing is a Process of Diverging and Converging

As you clarify, reframe, and define the problem you will experience a process of diverging and converging. You can visualize this as expanding and consolidating.

As you clarify the problem, you will first diverge.

This means that you will generate many ways to define the problem. This means you will be expanding the pool of potential ways to define and phrase the problem.

Next you will converge.

This is where you consolidate the ideas down, and choose the best problem to solve.

Creative Questions are the Key to Creative Solutions

Think of the problem as just a gap from where you are to where you want to be.

To figure out the real problem, first you identify your goal, wish or challenge.

Next, you brainstorm ways to express the problem.   This will help you generate creative questions for the problem.

Generating creative questions will then help you be able to generate creative solutions.

If you want creative solutions, ask creative questions.

Ask, “What is Your Goal, Wish, or Challenge?”

To get a better look at the problem, first identify what is your goal, wish or challenge.

This is your chance to figure out where you really want to be, before you try to figure out how to get there.

Firestien writes:

“If you want to apply Creative Problem Solving, you need to decide what you want to create, invent, solve, or improve. I call this identifying your goal., or wish, or challenge.”

Ask, “What’s Keeping You From Your Goal, Wish, Or Challenge?”

Identify the problem that’s holding you back.  The way to identify the real problem, or the best problem worth solving is to first ask lots of questions.

This is a process of generating a lot of questions.

By coming up with lots of ways to define the problem, you are setting the stage to generate creative solutions.

Crafting creative questions is the key to crafting creative solutions.

Ask Creative Questions to Get Creative Results

How can you expect creative ideas if you are not answering a creative question?

This is where you brainstorm ways to redefine the problem.

Firestien writes:

“When you ask a good question, you get good results.  Ask a lousy question, you get lousy results.

Ask a creative question, you get creative results.”

Brainstorm Ways to Express the Problem

Just like you brainstorm solutions, you can brainstorm the problems.

The way you express the problem will determine what kinds of solutions you will generate.

If you want creative results, you need to ask creative questions.

Firestien writes:

“To make this very clear: the language you use to describe a problem is going to determine whether you create a good question, a lousy question, or a creative question.  It also dictates the kinds of solutions you generate.”

Example of a Bad Question

Bad questions block your thinking and tell your brain there aren’t any ideas out there so don’t bother looking.

Firestien shares an example of a bad question:

“For example, ‘We don’t have enough money.’  Good or bad question?
Answer: Bad question.  In fact, it’s a statement.
When you hear that statement, your brain says,
‘OK, We don’t have enough money.’  Decision made.  Move on.”

Example of Good and Creative Questions

Creative questions prompt and provoke your mind to look for options.

Firestien shares examples of good and creative questions:

“’How might we raise the money for this project?’
’How might we reduce the cost of this project?’
Good and creative questions.”

These kinds of questions prompt your brain to start looking for some answers.

A Problem is Just a Gap from Where You Are and Where You Want to Be

Humans are resourceful and creative when you set the right stage.  It even helps to think of your problems as challenges.

And it helps to think of your challenges as opportunities to go from where you are, to where you want to be.

The space between where you are and where you want to be is the gap.  And the gap is your playground for Creative Problem Solving.

Firestien shares the story of Alex Osborn:

“When Alex Osborn, the inventor of brainstorming, first coined the phrase Creative Problem Solving in 1953, the idea was unheard of. 

A problem is no good.  Something to be avoided, solved, or dispersed as soon as possible.  A problem was certainly something you did not want to play around with, or get creative with.  A problem was bad.

And that was the hook.

A ‘problem’ is not a bad thing.  Every problem is just a gap from where you are, to where you want to be.”

To Generate Creative Questions, Write Down 15+ Ways to Restate Your Problem

This is where the rubber meets the road.   Firestien recommends writing down at least 15 different ways to restate your problem.

And this should take you no longer than five to ten minutes, which will save you time in the long run.

Firestien shares guidelines for generating creative questions:

  1. Defer judgment
  2. Strive for quantity
  3. Seek wild and unusual questions
  4. Combine and build on other questions

Firestien recommends using the following phrases to begin your creative questions:

  • How might…
  • How to…
  • What might be all the ways to…
  • In what ways might I…

Then generate lots of questions to get different views on the problem.

Ask “Why?” and “What’s Stopping Me?”

Sometimes it helps to ask just a couple simple questions to see the problem in a new way.

Firestien recommends asking two simple questions to help redefine the problem:

  1. Why?
  2. What’s stopping me?

Firestien writes:

“The purpose of generating lots of different ways to define the problem is to challenge the initial definition of the problem. Sometimes it helps to generate lots of creative questions.  Sometimes just asking a couple of simple questions will help you to see the problem in a new ways.”

Example of “What’s Stopping Me?”

Firestien shares an example of how his friends, Dave and Frank, used the “What’s stopping me?” question to get their innovation consulting company off the ground.

Firestien writes:

Goal: It would be great if we had a successful innovation consulting business.
What’s stopping us? We don’t have a name for the company.
What else is stopping us? We don’t have an office to work together.
What ELSE is stopping us? We don’t have a plan to get new clients.
What ELSE is stopping us?  We don’t have a company phone number.
What ELSE is stopping us?  We haven’t identified our key products.
What ELSE is stopping us?  We don’t have copy for our marketing.

By asking “What’s stopping us?”, they created a list of everything they needed to do to get their innovation consulting business up and running, and 18 months later, they celebrated their first million dollars in sales.

The next time you have a tough problem to solve, take a step back and see if you can brainstorm ways to redefine the problem.

You Might Also Like

How To Be Creative at Any Age
How To Become an Innovator
How To Innovate Better with Forced Connections
How To Innovate Better with Imagine If Cards
How To Warm Up Your Creativity for Better Innovation


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here