One of the biggest requirements for a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner is to be a problem solver. Most of us are asked to help solve problems on an almost continuous basis. This leads to one failing identified by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article entitled “Are You Solving the Right Problems?”. His research led to the finding that at the C-Suite level, “85% strongly agreed or agreed that their organizations were bad at problem diagnosis, and 87% strongly agreed or agreed that this flaw carried significant costs. Fewer than one in 10 said they were unaffected by the issue. The pattern is clear: Spurred by a penchant for action, managers tend to switch quickly into solution mode without checking whether they really understand the problem.”

To help companies resolve this dilemma, the author suggests you not simply study the problem in greater depth but that you employ a technique to reframe the issue. He noted, “problem-diagnosis frameworks, such as root cause analysis and the related 5 Whys questioning technique, they often find themselves digging deeper into the problem they’ve already defined rather than arriving at another diagnosis. That can be helpful, certainly. But creative solutions nearly always come from an alternative definition of your problem.” The creative approach, he suggests, is for a more in-depth study of the issue which can lead to “creative solutions by unearthing radically different framings of familiar and persistent problems”, through reframing the issue.

To help you through this process he lays out seven steps or what he terms “practices” because he believes reframing the problem is an iterative process. He believes these practices can work where you control the situation or have at least enough control to allow enough time to go through the entire process. Yet it also works in situations “when you don’t control the situation and have to scale the model according to how much time is available.” His seven practices are as follows. 

  1. Establish legitimacy. If you are the only person who understands the reframing process, it will be difficult to use going forward. The author says, “Your first job, therefore, is to establish the method’s legitimacy within the group, creating the conversational space necessary to employ reframing.” He suggests coming prepared to lay out the intellectual capital so be ready to do so.
  2. Bring outsiders into the discussion. This does not mean bring a subject matter expert (SME) from outside the organization but utilize internal talent which has not been a part of the decision making process. He says you can use a “boundary spanner” who is someone that understands the world the decision is being made in but is “not fully a part of your world.” Next you must take care to find someone who will speak truth to power. Finally, you should “expect input, not solutions” because outsiders usually cannot solve the problem but are there to “stimulate the problems owners to think differently.”
  3. Get people’s definitions in writing. This is not bromides from a lawyer but a practical response to the problem the author noted that participants will often leave “a meeting thinking they all agree on what the problem is after a loose oral description, only to discover weeks or months later that they had different views of the issue. Moreover, a successful reframing may well lurk in one of those views.” Moreover, by asking for and receiving the participant’s definitions prior to the meeting will “sensitize you to the perspectives of other stakeholders” and may indicate another range of problems.
  4. Ask what’s missing. In an unsurprising insight, the author found many people focused to intently on the details and often failed to step back and ask what they had been missing. If you can ask why a task was performed in a certain way, it could allow you to consider what might have been left out or neglected. The answer could flow simply from this insight.
  5. Consider multiple categories. Powerful change can come from changing your team’s perception of a problem. The author notes, “One way to trigger this kind of paradigm shift is to invite people to identify specifically what category of problem they think the group is facing. Is it an incentive problem? An expectations problem? An attitude problem? Then try to suggest other categories.” Put another way, the author is really talking about meta-thinking or “thinking about thinking” and at times this can provide new, different and useful insights.
  6. Analyze positive exceptions. Here, if looking at an issue, consider a situation where the problem did not occur and ask ‘what was different?’ The author wrote, “Looking at positive exceptions can also make the discussion less threatening. Especially in a large group or other public setting, dissecting a string of failures can quickly become confrontational and make people overly defensive. If, instead, you ask the group’s members to analyze a positive outcome, it becomes easier for them to examine their own behavior.”
  7. Question the objective. Here the author pointed to General David Petraeus, who famously reframed the issue in Iraq as one of defeating the enemy on the battlefield to the US Army pursuing, “a different, broader objective to prevent new enemies from cropping up—namely, get the populace on its side, thereby removing the source of recruits and other forms of local support the insurgency needed to operate in the area.” Although to anyone ‘of a certain age’ that sounds exactly like the ‘Hearts and Minds’ campaign of the Vietnam War, somehow the Army had forgotten that lesson. Changing the objective led to success in Iraq, if only during the time it was pursued “because a small group of rogue thinkers took it upon themselves to question the predefined and long-standing objectives of their organization.”

In the context of operationalizing your compliance program, this reframing discussion would seem particularly appropriate. While it “takes time and practice to get good at it”; if you trust the process, you can come up with some truly effective results. For any CCO or compliance practitioner, with the steadily evolving compliance standards, this technique may well help you to recognize new solutions to old problems for the corporate compliance program.


This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at

© Thomas R. Fox, 2017

Cecilia Fellouse Guenkel
Cecilia Fellouse Guenkel

The guidelines above remind me of the process followed under the High Performance Management System where organizations must force themselves to spend enough time analyzing the "current state" before moving to what the "desired state" could look like.  Teams often have to be refrained from jumping to what they think or want the "desired state" to look like.