This line from the 1986 movie, Top Gun, was delivered by an angry Maverick (Tom Cruise) to Iceman (Val Kilmer) after he accuses Cruise of being a cowboy and minimizes Cruise’s latest victory in the Top Gun competition.
Iceman retorts “You're everyone's problem. That's because every time you go up in the air, you're unsafe. I don't like you because you're dangerous.”
Iceman’s response sets the stage for the rest of the movie and was necessary to underscore his rivalry with Maverick but from a decision making perspective, it was an example of a poorly understood and poorly framed problem.
Iceman’s problem wasn’t that he thought Maverick was an unsafe pilot; rather it was that he was threatened by Maverick’s flying abilities and feared that he would not win the coveted “Top Gun” award.
Of course, the testosterone fueled competition between Maverick and Iceman would not have been so exciting if he had replied “I get scared pulling those high G maneuvers during dogfights and I’m really concerned that you are a better pilot than me.” This would have been the truth, but still falls short of fully answering Maverick’s iconic question….
So let’s explore what a well formed response would sound like. In order to do that, we need to understand problem framing.
Problem framing is the first step in problem solving / decision making. It is the definition of the problem to be solved and includes the problem scope, desired outcome and context. A well framed problem requires that the decision maker understand the cause(s) of the problem, the triggering event and the difference between symptoms and the root cause.
It’s important because the quality of a decision rests on having a correctly framed problem statement. The frame sets the context of the problem - it asks the “right” question, comprehends the constraints and is critical to making a smart decision. It’s the foundation of the decision process and influences every step including the solution criteria (aka objectives), the information gathered, the solution alternatives and the eventual outcome and actions of the decision making process.
The frame also includes how the problem is defined and perceived by the decision maker. Sometimes this perception makes all the difference and can turn problems into opportunities.
Now that we know what a problem frame is, let’s go back to Top Gun and apply our framing principles to the scene.
Maverick: [Faces Iceman] “What's your problem, Kazanski?”
Iceman: [Slams locker door and faces Maverick] “My problem is that I want to win the Top Gun trophy (desired outcome) and I am sure you are a better pilot especially since you just beat Jester in a dogfight (triggering event). My ego is out of control (root cause) and I just can’t stand the thought of losing to you. That means I need to increase my dogfighting skills (solution alternate1) or make sure that you quit (solution alternate 2). I suppose I could also bribe the instructors so they fail you (solution alternate 3) or ask your girlfriend to get you so drunk you can’t fly a plane for a week (solution alternate 4). Since the class is over in a couple of weeks (constraint) whatever I choose to do, it needs to happen quickly (criteria 1) and with minimal chance of failure (criteria 2). I need to implement a solution while maintaining my image as an upstanding, honest Navy officer and a gentleman (criteria 3).”
You can see that our re-write incorporates some best practices for problem framing. Clearly Iceman now understands what he wants, the problem issues, his solution criteria and what options are available to him. At this point, that’s all we can ask.
Next time I’ll discuss some tips for creating a well formed problem frame and also take a look at some common traps to avoid