Professor Nathan Novemsky
Professor of Marketing
When you’re a manager, one of the things you have to do is not just solve problems, but decide if there is a problem and what the nature of the problem is.
Most management problems don’t come with a heading. They don’t say, “This is your econ homework” or “This is your marketing homework.” They’re just things that happen in the world: a valuable customer complains loudly about something; a top employee gets into serious problems of some kind; a new technology surfaces, threatening your whole business model; your stock price is flat, even though your earnings are growing. What do you do?
In the Individual Problem Framing class, which all first-year students take, we teach students to take these unstructured problems and to think about them in a systematic way—to avoid psychological pitfalls and to bring some tools to bear. When you’re a manager, one of the things you have to do is not just solve problems, but decide if there is a problem and what the nature of the problem is.
My training is in psychology, and so one of the key things I see is that people will get stuck in a frame without realizing it. If you’re the CEO of a company, and your marketing VP comes to you and says, “We have this irate customer and we want to do something for him,” you’re likely to think of it as a marketing problem. You might give the customer some incentives or rewards to fix the problem. That has already framed the problem for you. And the frame determines where you look, and the kinds of information and solutions you consider. If you think of it as a marketing problem, you’ll never go and look at your IT system to see if employees are getting the right information, or your employee incentive and recruiting system to see if people are doing what you think they’re doing on the front line. If it happened to be the operations VP who first raised the problem, you might take a very different approach.
This suggests that these frames are arbitrary and can get set for no good reason. The subject line in an email could determine how you think about a problem, which is crazy. But it is a powerful intuitive process. I want our students to resist that and say, “I’m not going to take the frame that is imposed by the situation. I’m going to step back and look for the best frame.”