problem solving frameworks, tips tools and traps

A different perspective on problem solving frameworks

As a (decidedly amateuer) photographer, I recently reflected on how much of a vocabulary overlap there is between photography and the work I do helping clients solve the challenges they face.

One of the first thoughts that goes through a photographer's mind is "how I am going to frame my subject?".

No, I don't mean "frame" as in "picture frame on the wall".

Framing in a photography context is all about where and how the subject is presented within the overall "big picture". Am I going to "zoom in" to expose the detail? Am I going to "step back" and consider a wider viewpoint? What angle am I going to take? What aspects of the subject do I want to draw people's attention to? What different perspectives can I present and how will these change the impact of the final output?

How much of the above sounds like "consultant speak" that you've heard before?

And it continues ..........

A photographer will strive for the perfect shot by constantly "reframing the subject" within the photo, knowing that each photo taken will provide an opportunity to consider the subject differently.

One of the problem solving frameworks that I encourage people to engage with FIRST is a "reframing" exercise. This involves starting with the challenge you are facing and reframing it from multiple different perspectives in the form "better questions" - a topic I've previously written about.

It was Voltaire who said "Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers" and Tina Seelig of Stanford University recommends "framestorming before brainstorming" - to unlock creativity and explore more innovative solutions to problems by coming up with better questions in the first place.

I once worked in an organisation where a new CEO sent an "all staff" email out to a few thousand employees saying "how can we make this business better - send me your ideas".

Oh dear!

I shuddered when I received the email.

I understood the intent - but it was a TERRIBLE question to ask - it had not been correctly framed.

I sat back and waited for the inevitable call which came 2 days later from the comms team.


I wish they had contacted me BEFORE the CEO had sent out the email..........

The CEO had received THOUSANDS of email responses - which sounds like a good thing (it demonstrated that employee engagement was high eh?) - but .......... as the question lacked context (and indeed even a defined "subject" in photography terms) - the responses included

  • "put 3-ply toilet paper in the ladies toilets"
  • "serve more curry in the canteen"
  • "pay the staff more"
  • and a thousands more that were absolutely NOT what was hoped for ......

Buried under the deluge were indeed a number of potentially useful ideas and even a few absolutely cracking ones - but it took many days for my team to sift through the responses and classify them into "themes" for further consideration and figure out "better questions" to ask around those subjects.

The long term damage of this approach was that the vast majority of employees were now completely disengaged from the ideation process.

The many thousands of "trivial" suggestions were NOT trivial to the people that submitted them. From their perspective, these were very valid responses to the question that was asked. So when these same employees were once again asked to provide their input and ideas, the attitude of the vast majority of them was "nothing happened with my idea the last time around so I can't be bothered to waste my time again".

The way you frame a challenge has a major impact on the final result - give it careful consideration!

A good photographer also has high "situational awareness". They will pay attention to both the foreground and the background and anticipate any changes that might occur as they take the shot so that they can adapt and respond accordingly by being ready to take advantage of the changes at any time.

How many photos have you taken that have been ruined by a passing person or car, an unexpected wave at the beach, or a tree "growing" out of someone's head because you didn't pay any attention to the full situation at the time?

In the same way, I encourage people to hone their situational awareness by constantly scanning the horizon for changes that will impact their organisation, their industry and society in general. I'm constantly suprised by just how few organisations engage in this activity as part of their BAU (Business As Usual). It's far easier to do than most people think and the simplest way to start is by leveraging your own employees (feel free to get in touch if you want to find out how).

There are many "rules" of photography, including that has been around since the 17th century - the "rule of thirds" - which relates to composition of photos.

Obeying the rule of thirds will generally have a "pleasing" end result. Your output will be "safe" and "familiar" to people who view it.

When we are looking for innovative and creative solutions to problems through brainstorming, "safe" and "familiar" usually equate to "something someone has done before" - which isn't necessarily a BAD thing, particularly if you are "borrowing" a concept from a different industry - but "unique and original" is often a far more preferable outcome.

As photographers progress in their journey, they begin to purposely "break the rules" by exploring unique and unexpected angles and perspectives to present their subject in an entirely new and often groundbreaking way.

When approaching challenges with my clients and teams, I like to change things up a bit by breaking the rules too and one of my favourite problem solving frameworks is one of my own creations inspired by a popular internet meme called "wrong answers only".

This involves exploring the absolute WORST way of responding to a challenge and then exploring the new perspectives this brings - often with unexpectedly positive results!

Another staple of seasoned photographers is the use of props.

Photographers will take a look at what is to hand in any given situation and consider how adding or removing an element will change the final output. They will also give a lot of thought as to what (often random and unusual) props could be brought in to change the scene into something unexpected.

Inspiration can be found everywhere and I demonstrate this in ideation sessions through a problem solving framework known as "forced association", which involves taking the attribute os three random images and applying them to the challenge at hand - a simple and effective way of encouring new ideas.

I also often come across photographers who suffer from S.O.S or "Shiny Object Syndrome".

They buy all the latest technological gadgets and have "all the gear and no idea" how to use it, or even how to apply the most basic principles (does this sound like any organisations you know?).

The most basic principle of photography is FOCUS!

Focus can make or break an image.

For example, when photographing people or animals, the eyes and nose should always be in focus!

Portrait photography is often charectrised by "bokeh blur" - where the primary subject is in sharp foucs and the background is purposely, softly out of focus.

The "Focus Grid" in a camera will enable you to shift your focus and your "depth of field" (how much of the scene is in focus at any given time) in order to highlight the important parts or ensure everything is in focus if necessary.

Focus can make or break your solutions to a challenge too.

I help my clients consider "what to focus on" by plotting all their ideas on a Focus Grid - which is simply a quadrant (who doesn't love a 2x2 grid for simplicity??) that helps to prioritise what to proceed with now, what to experiment on, what to do further research into and what to keep an eye on for the future.

While all of the above might sound overly complicated, they are all simple techniques to learn and they can have quite a dramatic impact on your output when they become habit - and yes, I'm talking about both photography and problem solving here!

One of my all time favourite photographers, Ansel Adams, is quoted as saying:-

"You don't TAKE a photograph, you MAKE it"

What lessons from the world of photography can you apply to MAKE your next shot?


I've packaged all of the above problem solving frameworks into a "skills transfer wokshop" where I will show you how to approach challenges of any size by applying these different approaches, which will unlock your creativity and perspectives, enabling you to envisage your own unique outcomes and solutions. 

Click here to learn more.