Picture this: You’re in the middle of a project and your team hits a major roadblock. Maybe the client calls and drastically changes what they’re looking for; maybe there’s a creative hiccup that’s difficult to overcome, maybe you just can’t find the right way to tackle the central idea you’ve been tasked with. Whatever the problem, don’t panic. Rather than think of it as an issue, turn it into an opportunity—an educational moment that can help you understand the task at hand and handle it better.
Dealing with constraints like tight budgets, a constrained timeframe, or other unexpected issues is something we specialize in. This exercise will help you reframe a problem into an opportunity, a skill that could prove vital in so many challenging situations. Don’t worry about something going wrong in the middle of a project: Just be prepared for it and treat it as an expected part of the process. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, after all, and once that’s out of the way, a setback or hitch is simply a way to find a better angle on the work you’re already doing.
What do you want to learn?
Whatever the problem, you have to remember that it’s underpinned by a set of assumptions. You might not think about them, but they’re always there—assumptions that put boundaries around the problem, or define a value you didn’t know you had, or simplify the issue in some unforeseen way.
Institutional prejudice is a perfect example of a problem that, on first look, seems insurmountable. Say the Human Rights Campaign has asked your firm to design a campaign reframing LGBT rights as basic human rights. That’s a big issue, one that hard to find the right way to tackle. Or maybe it’s a much more basic problem, like thinking your team is too green to take on a big project. Either way, the approach to dealing with it is the same.
First, you have to list some basic assumptions about the problem; then, you have to improve them. You can even get your team together and have them write improvements down and share them with their neighbors, brainstorm-style. For the Human Rights Campaign issue, the assumptions (and prejudices) can be frighteningly large: That marriage is only for straight people, that LGBT rights infringe on other people’s rights somehow.
Find the shift
Here’s how you reframe that: By finding the borders of that argument (that only straight people’s needs should be worried about, for example) and stripping them away. Look at every part of the assumption and try to find something to shift.
The players. What if the characters were different?
The setting. What if you switched the context?
How people engage. What if the means of interaction shifted?
The sequence of events. What if the order of things shifted?
The value created. What if perception of worth was different?
With LGBT marriage rights, it’s easy to shift the players: Equality is an issue for everyone, not some people. Perhaps you could think of the setting: It’s not an issue confined to certain cities or states, it’s a national concern. Look at the value created: LGBT rights aren’t infringing on people, they’re giving everyone the same rights.
With a smaller, more focused problem like “My team is too green for this project,” the same approach still works. Change the value: Your team isn’t inexperienced, it has a fresh perspective. Change how people engage: Your team hasn’t done something like this before, but that’s a learning opportunity, not a hindrance.
Next, learn from it
Once you’ve found a reframing that makes sense, the next step is to game out how it will change the problem. What would it look like in action? What are the remaining roadblocks to success?
Let’s go back to our two examples. With the HRC campaign, the next steps are clear. If equality is an issue for everyone, then you can advertise nationwide and try to reach people that haven’t been communicated with before. It’s a bolder strategy, but it might be the best one. The roadblock, of course, is still finding the best way to communicate that message; that’s the job ahead.
With an inexperienced team, you’ve found the best way to sell them (or your client) on their value—they can bring new angles and fresh ideas to a project. The roadblock ahead would be that things could get too radical or different, so you can schedule check-ins with someone more experienced to make sure things don’t get too off-track.
A formula for opportunity
There’s a million different ways to apply this framework, and it’s best done with the team that’s experiencing a creative hiccup or difficulty tackling a big project. This exercise is both helpful from a strategizing perspective and as a motivational tool; it’ll get people’s brains working in the right direction and encourage them that there’s no wrong answers going forward.
Just remember this formula, which is best executed in group brainstorming mode:
First, identify the problem you want to talk through.
Then, go through the assumptions people might have about it.
Next, try to reframe—change variables like the players, the setting, how people engage, the sequence of events, or the value created.
Finally, understand its implications—the ways this will improve things going forward, and the problems to look out for.
Have everyone write things down as you go through these steps and share out to your and their neighbors, and you’ll quickly drum up some bright ideas—and some excited chatter—for tackling whatever everyone’s struggling with. It’s a great way to get everyone’s creative juices flowing, and it’s a smart way to plan ahead for whatever issues could plague your team in the future. But best of all, it’s a way to turn problems into something exciting, rather than something to fear, and keep everyone’s spirits high going forward.