Problem Solving During Times of Crisis

David Phillips, Lead Instructor for UNC Charlotte Design Thinking Certificate

It's never been more important for us to see, think, and work differently than it is during extremely challenging times like the COVID-19 pandemic.

finger frameIn order for us to be resilient as individuals, families, communities, and as a nation, we must quickly adapt to a new normal for an extended period of time. (This includes looking out for and taking care of those who may not have the resources to adapt easily.) My decades as an innovation consultant and educator have taught me that creativity loves constraints. But for that concept to be useful, we'll all need to become familiar with and/or increase our use of the tools and techniques of creative problem-solving. Design Thinking offers a multitude of tools for innovation and adapting to change, but there is one principle that is particularly relevant to our current situation: reframing.

Reframing is simply a matter of intentionally viewing a challenge from different angles or perspectives instead of immediately jumping into problem-solving mode. It's a way of changing our view, much like zooming in and out on a camera allows us to narrow or broaden our focus.

Why is this important? Because sometimes our bias for action leads us to solve the wrong problem. We build a great bridge only to find out it's over the wrong river. So what can we do differently, especially in a time of crisis?

One simple but powerful way of reframing is to stop asking, "What is the problem?" and instead ask, "What are we trying to accomplish?"

For example, if my car won't start because the battery is dead, it would be understandable to immediately focus my energy on solving the problem of "dead battery." In this case, my options would be rather limited. (Get a new battery, jump start, call AAA, etc.)

Building BlocksHowever, if I were to reframe the challenge by asking, "What am I trying to accomplish?", rarely would the answer be, "Start the car." If what I'm trying to accomplish is "go to the grocery store," my list of options just got bigger. (Get an Uber, call a friend, take the bus, walk, bike, scooter, etc.).

If I were to continue to reframe, I might realize that what I'm really trying to accomplish is "eat dinner at home." In that case, food and grocery delivery services become additional alternatives, which are a far cry from "get a new battery." And yes, I eventually need to solve for "dead battery," but I don't necessarily need to solve it at the moment the problem is identified.

Whether we're business owners or employees, government leaders or front-line staff, educators or parents-turned-homeschool teachers, we're all facing an onslaught of new challenges that we must deal with in real-time. It's certainly not a cure-all, but pausing to ask, "What are we trying to accomplish?" can help each us direct our limited resources toward the right challenges.

Learn More about Design Thinking

Learn how to apply the principles and practices of Human Centered Design to your organization through UNC Charlotte Continuing Education's Design Thinking Certificate: A Human-Centered Approach to Innovation.

Complete the form below to access our free recorded online information session.


Required fields are indicated by .