A heuristic framework for reflecting on joint problem framing

By BinBin Pearce and Olivier Ejderyan

1. BinBin Pearce (biography)
2. Olivier Ejderyan (biography)

What is joint problem framing? What are the key issues that joint problem framing has to address? How can joint problem framing be improved?

What is joint problem framing?

A key aspect of tackling complex problems is effectively bringing together differing points of view. These points of view are what Craik (1943) refers to as “small-scale models” of the problem situation. These are mental models formed from each individual’s experiences, interests, knowledge and environment. These mental models then set the boundaries for what problem definitions and solutions are possible and relevant to consider.

Joint problem framing then, involves a process of eliciting, clarifying, reconfiguring and reconciling (though not necessarily agreeing upon) different mental models in order to formulate the problem clearly and to identify common goals and criteria. Joint problem framing is the key to harnessing diversity as a resource rather than a stumbling block.

What are the key issues in joint problem framing?

The question of how do you do joint problem framing, in practice, remains a topic that is underexplored. Little information is available about:

  • how joint problem framing processes are launched and managed
  • what adjustments and adaptations have to be made in order for the project partners to arrive at a jointly framed problem
  • the effectiveness of different forms of joint problem framing such as early exploratory workshops involving all scientists and practitioners, the re-framing of a scientific problem formulated in a research proposal, or informal iterations between the researchers and stakeholders based on previous personal contacts
  • tacit knowledge such as knowing who to invite to the table and when, how to set up a safe and open environment for discussion, how to listen, and how to confront and work around existing power dynamics.

As a consequence, each time researchers tackle a complex problem they must find their own approach to the challenging task of joint problem framing, according to their own set of circumstances and abilities.

How can joint problem framing be improved?

Here we offer a heuristic framework, shown in the table below, that allows researchers engaging in joint problem framing to reflect and build upon their own experiences and knowledge to arrive at answers relevant to the context in which they are working.

The heuristic framework takes the form of a series of questions that help researchers to reflect upon the key insights and lessons for conducting both ongoing and future joint problem framing processes. It is intended to help those just starting off in research on complex problems by providing a means to structure new experiences, as well as assisting more advanced researchers who are interested in assessing and systematising past experiences of joint problem framing.

The framework is built upon the identification of challenges to joint problem framing from the literature, as well as our own experiences.

Heuristic framework for joint problem framing (adapted from Pearce and Ejderyan, 2020)

Would you find this framework useful for capturing the nitty-gritty of joint problem framing? What further challenges would you include in the framework?

To find out more:
Pearce, B. J. and Ejderyan, O. (2020). Joint problem framing as reflexive practice: Honing a transdisciplinary skill. Sustainability Science, 15, 3: 683–698. (Online) (DOI): http://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-019-00744-2

Craik, K. (1943). The Nature of Explanation. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Biography: BinBin Pearce PhD is a senior scientist and lecturer in the Transdisciplinarity Lab in the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. Making use of a mental models approach, cognitive mapping, soft systems methodology, qualitative systems modelling and institutional analysis, her research interest is in developing and evaluating methods for collaborative decision making. Specifically, she focuses on how diverse stakeholders and experts can jointly identify, frame and act upon complex problems on diverse topics within the field of sustainable development. With a background in environmental engineering and design thinking, she has been involved in research and engineering projects on waste management, energy, and agriculture projects in Singapore, India, China, and the United States. She has developed an integrated systems and design thinking methodology which has been implemented by more than 800 students at all levels, community members and members of the Swiss federal government.

Biography: Olivier Ejderyan PhD is a researcher at the Swiss Competence Center for Energy Research – Supply of Electricity (SCCER -SoE) and at the Transdisciplinarity Lab at the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. His research focuses on the effects of participatory methods when implementing environmental technology projects. He is particularly interested in how such methods can be used to reveal context-specific political or technical issues at play in the acceptance of environmental technologies. His current research applies this approach in the area of renewable and low carbon geo-energy technologies such as deep geothermal energy, heat storage, and carbon capture and storage.

17 thoughts on “A heuristic framework for reflecting on joint problem framing”

  1. Systematically documenting experiences from joint problem framing is important for improving transdisciplinary research and practice. Thank you for sharing a framework for guiding this process. While I am hesitant to suggest more ‘challenges’ to explore (there are already so many great ones to think about in your framework!), I’m curious about how the nature of a problem might influence problem framing, and in what context reflection should happen. For example, I think some problems with multi-faceted concepts (e.g. food security) make it important to reflect, whereas others where a problem is relatively clear and agreed upon (e.g. climate change), I am not so sure.

    • Thanks a lot for your comment.
      Indeed, joint problem framing is not a necessity for all types of problems
      We address this explicitly in the paper, using a typology of problems that distinguishes:
      – “Rubik’s cube” problems (simple and well structured) do not require problem framing. The frame is provided by the puzzle itself.
      – “Disciplinary” problems (complex but well-structured) are driven by the needs of a specific expertise or a specific worldview. They need framing but from a single perspective.
      – “Colouring” problems (simple but ill structured) are problems with unclear solutions at the start because there are no set criteria by which to judge the appropriateness of a solution. But once a solution is identified its implementation is straightforward. Here too a single perspective framing is enough.
      – “Wicked” problems, in contrast to all other types of problems, require joint problem framing. These problems are highly complex, ill structured and the problem outcomes can affect many people.

      As for suggesting more challenges: we are very open to this. We identified the challenges through a literature review of papers focusing on transdisciplinary projects in the field of sustainability science. We do not expect to have identified all potentially relevant challenges. The framework is adaptable to different contexts and the list of questions in the rows can be expanded. What is important is to go through the reflection on the process along the x axis

    • Great thought!

      I am currently working on a paper exactly on this topic, to develop further what Olivier pointed out in our paper. If you are interested in working together on it, please get in touch.


  2. What about adding these two dimensions/questions? 1. Agreement–What level of agreement did your team reach on the formulation of the joint problem?, 2. Integration–What framework, metaphor, or tool helped to integrate several perspectives into the joint problem formulation?

    • Thanks a lot for suggesting these. Do you see them fitting into the current categories of challenges?
      To me both seem to be process related challenges. Question 1 might be a challenge in itself. Question 2 reads like a subset of what we identified as “Knowing and assessing methods”

      • I agree that the integration question could go into the “Knowing and assessing methods” category, but it is so crucial to ID/TD work, maybe it’s worth calling it out somehow. The agreement question is essential for determining how well the group is actually going to be able to coordinate their next steps.

        • From my perspective, I think it matches what we were trying to get at from the “Plurality of perspectives” category. What you’re getting at, I think, with both “Agreement” and “Integration”, are taking into the account the outcomes of that plurality. I do agree it is important to call out and create specific guiding questions to guide observation towards those topics.

    • Great suggestions – I think we can already use these for the next version…

      Glad to have benefitted from your thoughts,

  3. Thanks very much for this interesting blog about the challenging arena of joint problem framing.

    As I read it, it brought to mind the relevance of Ulrich’s Critical Systems Heuristics and Midgley’s Boundary Critique, and also their importance in being situated at the front end of a collaborative design process. You may like to consider adding a process-oriented challenge along the lines of ‘collective improvement’: something like – ‘what has this joint problem framing process offered as a form of collective improvement, that would not otherwise have been achieved?’ This could begin to tease out, in contextual and practical detail, the added value that this joint approach offers, compared with a ‘do nothing’ scenario.

    • Thanks a lot for your comment. As mentioned in another reply, the framework should be adapted depending on a project setting/field of activity.
      We are very open to integrating new challenges. The question you propose is really interesting. Indeed, I can see how combined with the “How do you know this” question in the columns it could help to get a better grip on the contribution of a joint problem framing process. This can be a quite useful contribution when reporting on a project for evaluation, impact assessment, etc.

      • Thanks for your reply, Olivier. I do think that this aspect of assessing collective improvement in new ways is a crucial strand of this work on joint problem-framing, as we all strive to get to grips with the difference that this approach makes in circumstances of complexity.

    • What a perceptive comment! Indeed, Ulrich and Midgley were very influential for the origin of the concept.

      I think it’s a great suggestion to develop a way of assessing the “added value” of such a process. If we are able to do this, we would be addressing many of the challenges we have in assessing the value of TD processes in general. If you know of or are developing such processes yourself, please get in touch!

      The way that we do it currently is that the joint problem framing process is often applied in a methodology that I developed called integrated systems and design thinking. The outputs of this methodology are: 1) problem statements 2) prototypes. That means, I am able to evaluate the quality of statements, the acceptance of prototypes by stakeholders, and the success and sustainability of its take up. Prototypes can be both physical or non-physical solutions aimed to address the joint problem framing. This is a limited approach, but it is what we are doing at the moment.


      • Thanks for your reply, BinBin. I’ve worked in multi-agency settings where it’s very difficult in practice to justify the time it takes working together and framing a problem jointly, in order to get a feel for where there could be social benefits (overall effectiveness as well as efficiency). The pressure ‘to deliver’ can be too restrictive. It often seemed to boil down to taking a broader, longer-term perspective and escaping organizational, reactive ‘firefighting’. Each organization was working to its own metrics of improvement – so it can sometimes be difficult to be opportunistic and adaptive collectively. I would like to think that a sense of collective improvement could begin to evolve hand-in-hand alongside this joint problem framing work if an attempt is made to to capture that collective improvement process in more detail – it will possibly be based on professional experience, reflexivity and gathered short stories/examples, rather than linear metrics? …Although the important role of data would be to back up the sense-making: the latter would very much need to take the lead?

        Your integrated systems and design thinking methodology sounds interesting – no doubt you have come across the good folk of the Systemic Design Association https://systemic-design.net/sda/

  4. Thank you Binbin and Olivier for sharing. This framework is an attractive attempt to align the teams’ perspectives before entering the solution process. The appeal of this framework will be evident when it is implemented in a real-world case. When I answered the questions and moved on, its effectiveness became more apparent.
    By and large, I noticed two notable points you might want to hear about.

    Firstly, who are these questions being asked? Is the recognition of stakeholders and interests directly related to the people involved? There are always people in the system who are not directly involved but inadvertently affected. If it occurs in the process, it might be more effective and will be compatible to make justice through the finding solutions.

    Moreover, most decisions are made based on the current situation, It may be a good idea to consider the ideal situation for some of the questions. Although it is not possible for all rows, in some cases (for example, stakeholders, or basis of knowledge) it can be used. In this framework, does considering the ideal state help to better exploring the problem?

    • Dear Moein,

      Thanks for your thoughtful questions. I’ll address them here:

      1) Who is being asked? – The origins of this approach indeed emerged from a very specific context. This is the transdisciplinary research project context in which government officials, NGOs, researchers and stakeholders who are directly related to the issues at hand work together closely over a period of a months to years to primarily create new knowledge and secondarily to contribute to transformation. The question of which stakeholders should be involved, of course, is an important one, but is not one directly answered by this heuristic framework. This means that we assume that the researcher or the coordinators of a project will use their prior knowledge to assemble a group that matches their context. In this sense, the framework is not a comprehensive tool that can be used to construct all steps of a transdisciplinary process, However, indirectly, the framework encourages the user to reflect on the quality of stakeholder involvement in the current endeavour. The insights about both successes and failures can then be taken up in the next project or collective learning/action setting. In this gradual way, knowledge that matches the experience, environment and knowledge of the user is built up, one that develops the sensitivity for what kind of stakeholder involvement is appropriate.

      2) Considering the ideal? – Considering the ideal situation is indeed a well-proven path towards complex problem solving. Our argument is that in order for us to know what “ideal” we want or even how to interpret and incorporate other people’s ideals, we have to be clear about what this ideal is addressing. The point is that our ideals hide implicit assumptions about what we perceive to be problems and that until we can agree on what the problem is, or at least come to an understanding of how differently problems can be perceived, there will be little action for implementing ideals (even when there is verbal agreement in the room). Therefore, I think our focus on problems is ultimately motivated by the question of how do we actually get people to implement action rather than just talk about it. And my perspective is that much action is lost because people do not fundamentally agree on the starting point of the problem, even if they agree on an ideal that is hard to disagree with. In this sense, joint problem framing is not really about consensus, but creation – creating a new way of looking at the problem that is fundamentally inclusive and new.

      I hope my responses are clear. Am happy to follow up and talk further.


  5. An interesting piece and relevant to work we’ve been doing at CECAN (Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus https://www.cecan.ac.uk/) to develop methods for handling complexity in policy development and analysis in particular Participatory Systems Mapping.

    • Thanks for connecting, would love to learn more about how we can improve our approach based on your experiences. Let me know if you would like to discuss further.


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