Global Network Week Students Get a Hands-On Lesson in Reframing Problems

“Institutions don’t make decisions—people make decisions,” said Professor Rodrigo Canales in a Global Network Week session on March 13.

That means that in order to innovate, companies need to understand what real customers—in all their variety—want, so that users’ needs and perspectives drive the solutions.

To that end, as part of a student-run Global Network Week module on design and innovation, Canales led 30 students from throughout the Global Network for Advanced Management in a three-hour, hands-on workshop called “Reframing the Problem,” featuring an exercise he uses both when teaching and when consulting businesses.

The point of the exercise is to break free of preconceptions about the purpose of a project and go down an unknown path, said Canales, who teaches Yale SOM’s core Innovator course.

The project, in this case, was to answer a question with particular relevance to the students participating in Global Network Week: “How can we increase awareness of, engagement with, and value added by the Global Network for Advanced Management for both students and alumni of participating schools?" Canales took the students through a series of brainstorms in order to put aside their assumptions, tailor that question for specific end users, and find specific solutions.

Put first things first. Canales divided the students into groups, asking them to identify primary users (people you’re directly trying to influence or help); secondary users (people important to the cause); and necessary allies (people who would be useful to have on board). Once you can identify them, he said, you can create believable—and likable—user archetypes, or personas. “Define the users, make personas, and now build a strategy,” he said; once you understand whom you’re targeting, you can refine the question to fit the persona.

Use your hands. To do this, he said, you must “physically engage with the challenge, to destroy and unpack it”—and be willing to make a mess. As Canales played background music from his iPhone (and used his own hands to sculpt a small yellow head out of Play-Doh), the group broke out into small teams. “You are going to give this person a name, give them a face, give them a lifestyle,” he told the students. They gathered around whiteboards, covering them with descriptive language and collages of images clipped from magazines. The result was a group of distinctive portraits—people with unique values, hobbies, and preoccupations.

Use the first person. To identify with your persona, Canales said, “Use first-person language—I worry about this, I care about this. It makes a difference.” That also helps prevent against generalizing. “Be very careful with creating a caricature or stereotype,” he said. “Instead, empathize with users and see the problem from their perspective. It should be compelling: you want to interact with, spend time with this person. Give these people depth and volume.”

Everyone should participate. “It’s very common for teams to nominate someone who is the owner of the board and the owner of the market,” Canales said. “If you have an insight about the user, just write it yourself.”

Continue the conversation. After reframing, said Canales, the thinking isn’t over. “One of the rules when you’re creating user archetypes—the goal of an archetype—is to bring that person into the room to make sure that archetype is being represented accurately. And now your user is literally in the room with you helping you make better decisions.”

By the end of the session, each team had rewritten the broad question so that it applied to their detailed persona. Canales urged the class to continue the process in their other endeavors. “Try it!” Canales said. “You will be surprised by the kind of value you start generating and how much more grounded you will be.” Afterward, he reflected: “It is a powerful tool when a team needs divergent thinking—new doors, new approaches, new perspectives. It is terrible if you are looking for convergence, i.e., to move into the next stage of a process, as it is a tool that will reliably open new doors.”

 “I found the reframing process to be powerful and practical,” said Walter Lindop, a student from University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business in South Africa, who also works in health analytics and market research. “I will definitely apply this approach to my work.”