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Reframing Tough Problems: A Key to Successful Organizational Change

Any organization that seeks to evolve and grow will inevitably face difficult challenges that seem impossible to overcome. When problems appear intractable, it is natural to feel stuck, frustrated, or defeated. However, the way a problem is perceived and understood makes all the difference in developing an effective solution. Recognizing this, leaders must learn to reframe tough issues by shifting perspectives in a strategic and insightful manner.

Today we will explore how reframing allows for new possibilities to emerge, even in seemingly hopeless situations.

Reframing Problems in Theory

Scholarly works on organizational change and leadership stress the importance of flexible thinking when tackling complex problems. According to research by Kegan and Lahey (2009), people often become entrenched in habitual ways of viewing issues that prevent openness to alternative mindsets. Their framework of "Immunity to Change" suggests that identifying and letting go of hidden assumptions is crucial for meaningful progress. Similarly, studies by Bolman and Deal (2017) emphasize using multiple "frames" or lenses to examine organizational dynamics from different angles. They found reframing helped surface fresh insights that could stimulate innovative solutions. Overall, theories point to the power of consciously shifting perspectives to make headway even on entrenched obstacles.

Step 1: Analyzing Core Assumptions: The first step in reframing is to carefully analyze the core assumptions underlying how a problem is currently perceived and defined. Leaders must reflect on implicit taken-for-granted beliefs that color current viewpoints (Kegan & Lahey, 2009). For example, is the focal issue defined too narrowly based on long-held mindsets? Are there unexamined cultural norms or ideological stances influencing perceptions in a restrictive way? Bringing tacit premises to light allows for questioning limitations and reconsidering boundaries of the defined problem space.

Step 2: Considering Alternative Frames: Once core assumptions are made explicit, the next step is to open-mindedly explore alternative ways of framing or defining the central issue (Bolman & Deal, 2017). Possible lenses to trial include structural, human resource, political, and symbolic perspectives. Leaders should brainstorm how shifting the frame's borders or emphasis could cast the problem in a new light and potentially uncover unseen facets. For example, a manufacturing issue seen solely as production problem could be redefined factoring in employee morale or client relationships. New angles may surface workable avenues not evident before.

Step 3: Envisioning Fresh Solutions: Reframing dismantles entrenched barriers, creating space for innovative solutions previously inconceivable. With alternative perspectives in mind, the problem is ripe for solution-focused brainstorming unleashed from past constraints (Kegan & Lahey, 2009). Leaders energize teams to think without limits, combining reframed understanding with creativity. Unforeseen yet practical answers may emerge from new vantage points, getting at root issues in a breakthrough manner. Implementation then reinforces the reframed mindset, cementing gains.

Reframing in Practice

The following industry examples illustrate how strategic reframing has helped organizations overcome formerly intractable challenges.

Case Study 1 - Technology Firm

A Silicon Valley startup faced plummeting employee engagement despite perks. Annual surveys showed 85% intended to leave within a year. Leaders analyzed assumptions, realizing the problem was viewed through a single human resources frame focusing on compensation. Reframing employed a structural lens emphasizing unclear roles and a symbolic perspective of eroding higher purpose beyond financial ambitions. They redesigned roles for meaning and impact, casting the company's innovation as advancing societal good. Surveys now show over 90% feeling their work matters and wanting to stay long-term. Reframing uncovered the true problem's multifaceted nature.

Case Study 2 - Retail Chain

Declining customer loyalty frustrated executives at a nationwide retailer. Solutions like rewards programs failed to gain traction. By questioning core assumptions, leaders saw the issue was narrowly defined around transactions versus experiences. Alternative structural and political frames considered in-store staff's frontline perspectives on pain points like understaffing. Symbolic angles highlighted the brand promise of personalized service. As a result, employee empowerment and streamlined in-store processes now better deliver on this promise. Customer satisfaction and retention have significantly improved. Reframing shifted focus from superficial fixes toward addressing root disconnections.

Case Study 3 - Non-profit Organization

A children's health non-profit faced fundraising shortfalls during economic downturns, undermining services. Attempts to cut costs exacerbated volunteer burnout. Leaders reframed the issue through multiple lenses. Viewing it politically revealed how different departments blamed each other during struggles. A human resources frame highlighted burned out volunteers as the true asset needing care. Symbolically, their cause's life-changing impact became obscured. They consolidated non-essential spending, empowered volunteers as "heroes," and relaunched the mission boldly. This shifted energy from problems toward passion, strengthening volunteer retention through difficult periods. Reframing tapped into symbolic purpose to galvanize resources anew.

Applying Reframing Strategically

The above examples demonstrate how systematically reframing tough problems can generate innovative solutions. Leaders must apply the reframing process consciously and strategically for best results.

  • Use Multiple Lenses: Considering issues from varied structural, human, political and symbolic angles provides more rounded perspectives versus a single limited view. Diversity yields rich insights hidden before.

  • Question Assumptions Deliberately: Core assumptions shaping current mindsets must be explicitly identified and scrutinized to dismantle constraints. Simply brainstorming solutions preserves existing limitations.

  • Stay Open-Minded to Possibilities: To reframe effectively, an open and curious approach is needed over defensiveness. Fresh frames should be tried on with intellectual interest versus dismissal to uncover new territory.

  • Involve Stakeholders Directly: Teams impacted by the problem offer important 'on-the-ground' realities often missing from leadership alone. Engaging stakeholders in reframing cultivates buy-in for non-traditional solutions.

  • Link Reframe to Cultural Reinforcement: The power of reframing is released fully through embedding shifts into ongoing operations, structures and storytelling to cement new mindsets organization-wide.


For any organization navigating complex challenges, reframing tough problems holds the key to breakthrough results. By consciously analyzing core assumptions, considering alternative perspectives, and strategically applying a reframed understanding, formerly intractable issues become ripe for innovative solutions. Leaders able to flexibly think 'outside the frame' access untapped possibilities and energize organizations to thrive, even in difficult times. Overall, systematically applying the reframing process provides a powerful approach for addressing any complex problem and driving meaningful progress.


  • Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2017). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice and leadership (6th ed.). John Wiley & Sons.

  • Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization. Harvard Business Review Press.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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