It feels productive to toss out ideas for a solution and demonstrate how much we want to help. But it’s usually unproductive if we haven’t done something essential first: Make sure we understand the problem from their frame of reference.
A man walking in the desert approached a Bedouin. “How far to the nearest oasis?” he inquired.
The Bedouin did not respond. “I said, how far is it to the nearest oasis?” the man asked, a bit more loudly this time and enunciating his words very carefully.
The Bedouin still did not respond. The man shook his head in frustration, turned, and began to walk away.
The Bedouin called out, “It will take you three hours!”
The man spun around to face the Bedouin. “Couldn’t you have told me that when I first asked?”
“No,” replied the Bedouin. “I couldn’t answer until I knew how fast you walk.”
Be the Bedouin
When we hurry to solution, the only frame of reference from which we can solve the problem is our own. And when each person is trying to solve a problem primarily from their own frame of reference, there’s likely to be a solution gap.
A solution gap occurs when we fall in love with our own solution without vetting its merits from their perspective.
The relentless push to solve before understanding comes from pressure both inside and out.
Inside, generating ideas for solution makes us feel helpful. It makes us feel smart. It shows we’re trying hard. It shows that we’re worthy.
Outside, the push to resolve comes from limited time to negotiate in a busy day. From overfull plates. From the tendency to value “Eureka!” more than, “That’s interesting…”
But when we solve with only partial data, we may inadvertently trade good and lasting solution for fast solution. Good and lasting solutions need data from multiple frames of reference.
So: Let’s be the Bedouin. Let’s take the time to understand from outside our own frame of reference and discover answers and solutions that were invisible to us before.
The uncommon art of masterful problem framing
Father Gregory Boyle is a master at the art of problem framing and reframing. He is a Jesuit priest who founded and runs Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program in Los Angeles, and this is a story about how he helped his parishioners reconsider a very smelly problem.Read the article
This post was originally published 10 July 2010 and was updated and expanded in 2019.