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Classroom Tips: Reframing Problems to Reach New Customers

Professor Rodrigo Canales

By Matthew O’Rourke

When can reframing a problem help grow your business? At a talk during the Design and Innovation Global Network Week module held at Yale SOM in March, Rodrigo Canales, associate professor of organizational behavior, discussed how reframing can help organizations understand customers and create solutions with their needs in mind.

“A good reframing session will always provide new and powerful ways to look at a problem,” Canales said. “Whenever you’re stuck in a problem, it will always open new ways of thinking in surprising and powerful ways.”

For example, perhaps a shoe company wants to sell its newest sneaker line to a new audience—one  who’s looking for a shoe that feels safe and secure rather than one that lets them jump higher. The first step is to create an archetype—a portrait of the potential customer. Reframing means thinking from that person’s point of view, not the organization’s.

“A good archetype makes you want to help the person,” Canales said. “The goal is to build an emotional connection: this is not about building an analytical set of data to look at customer value. It’s about building empathy and conveying a real person, with real needs, that you want to help.”

To change an organization’s thinking about how to sell a product to a new group of potential customers, Canales said, leaders should remember several points:

  • Identify and understand the target audience. Organizations should know their audience when they look to reframe a problem. For example, if a university is seeking to recruit specific candidates, administrators should understand students’ motivations for enrolling in a particular degree program. “Go out and talk with people,” Canales said. “Observe them. Interview them. Gather as much information about them as possible somehow, so you can understand them… You want to make sure that you have an archetype that describes the critical things you need to know about each of them. Archetypes become a common language for the entire organization. Whenever someone suggests going down a particular path, somebody can say, ‘Wait, I don't think our student would like that.’ Not only does that provide insights, but you also have a language that helps you make sure that you’re always making decisions based on the people you care about.”
  • Approach the problem from different perspectives. Create multiple target audiences and assign a team member to champion each. For the university, perhaps one perspective is a woman in her mid-career looking to expand her skill set, and another might be a young entrepreneur launching a business. Each point of view should be well-represented and defended. “You want different people in the room to truly represent the views of those established individuals,” he said. “You want to have a diversity of perspectives in the room that can really help you think about the question or the solutions in different ways. The final part is having a good facilitator who enforces good norms. There is no person who has a truth here or should be speaking more than another. That balance is important.”
  • Understand when reframing is the wrong path. Sometimes, reframing isn’t the best strategy available. For example, if an organization has already developed two possible approaches and is deciding between them, reframing will confuse the issue. “When you’re trying to choose between different options and that’s what you’re solving for, do not do reframing, because reframing always opens new doors. It doesn’t help you close doors, it helps you open doors,” Canales said. “When people are stuck with deciding between many options and you reframe, you’re going to drive them crazy. However, when people need to think about a problem in a different way, then reframing is always going to be helpful.”