Grounded EthnoDesign Part 1: Framing Problems for Effective Strategy Formulation

I'm coming up to 10 years as a consultant to publicly funded research organisations. Reflecting across that time, I have distilled the best of what I have learned and made it the core of how Research Strategies Australia works with clients. In the coming weeks I will provide an overview of our approach, which we refer to as Grounded EthnoDesign (GED). It is an integrated approach to strategy, uniquely combining elements of grounded theory, ethnographic methods, and design thinking. GED presents an iterative and flexible method to deliver an institution's strategic ambitions. The result is an actionable strategy that addresses the most pressing strategic problems.

This article is the first installment in a three-part series dedicated to exploring GED. Throughout this series, I will present the various elements of the approach and demonstrate its applicability and effectiveness in strategic problem-solving.

In this first article, I will primarily focus on the initial stages of the GED process: identifying an institutional intention and framing critical startegic problems. The art of problem framing is pivotal, as it sets the stage for the entire strategic process. In subsequent articles, we will build upon this foundation, addressing solution design and implementation.


Grounded EthnoDesign (GED) is a strategy formulation approach that brings together the best of grounded theory, ethnography, and design thinking principles. It presents a distinctive model for formulating organisational strategy, with a robust focus on problem identification, solution design, and implementation. It borrows heavily from the work of Roger L. Martin, Richard Rumelt, and Henry Mintzberg as well as drawing on work from the field of program evaluation.

The central premise of GED is that by deeply understanding the desires of an organisation, we can frame critical problems to solve, and thereby develop actionable strategies that align with institutional ambitions.

The GED process is a seven-stage cycle starting with Problem Framing, where the gap between current outcomes and institutional ambitions highlights the problems to be solved. These problems are transformed into "How Might We" (HMW) questions, fostering a broader exploration of potential solutions.

Following this, a Theory of Change (ToC) is developed, detailing the beliefs that need to be held to transition from the current state to the future state. Assumptions underlying the ToC are then tested, and potential barriers to change identified, ensuring the practicality of the solutions.

Finally, the implementation of the strategy is managed, and decisions continuously evaluated, keeping the process adaptive and responsive to evolving circumstances. With these stages, GED offers a comprehensive approach to strategy formulation and execution.

Identifying Institutional Intention or Ambition

The GED process for strategy formulation begins by identifying the institutional intention or ambition. This foundational step involves gaining a comprehensive understanding of the organisation's goals and desired outcomes, ultimately defining the aspiration it is striving to realise.

This is primarily gleaned from the organisation's senior leadership - the people who are responsbile for the performance of the institution's culture, operations, and value system. These include executives, but can also include managers, and employees who collectively possess a nuanced view of the organisation's intention. Engaging these internal stakeholders through interviews, workshops, or informal conversations provides valuable insights into the organisation's aspirations,  setting the direction for the entire GED process. Recognising that internal stakeholders represent the organisational goals and desired outcomes, their perspectives are vital in defining the institutional ambition.

The importance of this initial step cannot be overstated. Establishing a clear, well-articulated institutional ambition serves as the 'North Star' for the entire strategy formulation. It sets the stage for problem identification by providing a benchmark against which the current performance of the organisation can be compared. This allows for the identification of gaps or issues hindering the organisation from reaching its desired state, and these are the problems that the remainder of the GED process aims to solve. In essence, the clearer the understanding of the institutional intention, the more accurately problems can be framed, setting the trajectory for the development and implementation of effective strategies.

Identifying and Framing Problems

Once the institutional intention is established, we begin identifying and framing problems. This involves recognising the gaps or discrepancies between the organisation's desired outcomes as defined by the institutional ambition and its current outcomes.

In essence, the problems to be solved within the GED framework are the factors that prevent the organisation from fully realising its institutional ambitions. Comparing the current outcomes with the desired ones, allows for a comprehensive identification of these factors. This could involve understanding operational inefficiencies, market challenges, internal capability limitations, or any other perceived obstacles standing in the path of achieving the organisation's goals. Guided brainstorming is a key activity we undertake in our problem framing workshops to gain a broad understanding of issues.

(It is important to emphasise that all our analysis at this point is ethnographic - we are working with people to understand an organisation's ambition and limitations against that amibiiton. We are not - as is the common approach in consulting engagements - analysing the external environment, looking for opportunities, analysing competitors etc. GED is a human-centric process, through and through.)

Framing issues as 'problems' is more than mere semantics; it's a critical part of the GED process. Problem framing involves taking issues and defining them in a way that highlights their impacts, causes, and potential solutions. By framing issues as problems, they become actionable challenges that can be addressed through strategic interventions.

The importance of effective problem framing in the GED process is profound. It sets the path by transforming problems into questions, which allows us to think about solutions, and informs our theory of change. It helps to ensure that the entire strategy formulation process remains focused on bridging the gap between the current performance and the institutional ambition, and removing the impediments, rather than what often passes for strategy which is a wish list of ambitions without a clear idea of how to achieve them. In short, effective problem framing turns issues into opportunities for strategic choices and change.

Broadening the Perspective

We recognise that an organisation doesn't operate in isolation; it's part of a broader system. This underscores the importance of incorporating the perspectives of external stakeholders in problem framing. External stakeholders, such as customers (broadly defined), partners, suppliers, or even regulatory bodies, provide a viewpoint that is different from the internal organisational context but equally significant.

Interviews with external stakeholders form a critical component of during the problem framing stage. We aim to solicit insights on how these stakeholders perceive the organisation's ambitions, its operations, products, or services, and their views on the identified problems. They shed light on how the organisation's issues impact them, revealing facets of problems that may not be immediately apparent from an internal perspective. This also ensures that we are designing for 'users', in the classic design-thinking approach, rather than just focusing on the internal needs of the organisation.

External stakeholder perspectives provide an additional layer of context to problem framing. They offer a broader view, helping to paint a more comprehensive picture of the problems and their implications.

By integrating these into the problem framing stage, GED ensures that  problems are understood in all their complexity, considering both internal and external impacts. This helps shape a more nuanced, holistic strategy aimed at bridging the gap between the current outcomes and the institutional ambitions, while accounting for the wider systems in which the organisation operates.

Transforming Problems into Questions

Next, GED borrows again from design-thinking, transforming problems into "How Might We" (HMW) questions. This effectively reframes problems, shifting the focus from the problems themselves to the potential solutions.

HMW questions are crafted to be broad enough to encourage diverse thinking and yet specific enough to be actionable. For example, a problem stating "We are losing our share of research funding to competitors because we cannot retain our best staff" might be transformed into "How might we regain our market share?" Unlike the original problem, this question does not dictate a specific solution but opens up a realm of possibilities, amongst which retaining staff might be one.

Creative reframing promotes a more expansive exploration of potential solutions. It encourages thinking that is not constrained by the status quo, nor preconceived notions and bias, but driven by the ambition to bridge the gap between the current and the desired outcomes. By framing problems as HMW questions, an organisation is provoked to think differently, encouraging innovation and breaking away from entrenched ways of thinking.

The transformation of problems into HMW questions reiterates the significance of effective problem framing. As the foundation for solution design, problem framing is essential in setting the stage for generating innovative, impactful solutions. With HMW questions, GED turns problem identification from a form of constraint into a form of liberation, sparking creativity and potential breakthroughs towards achieving the institutional ambition.


This covers off the initial stages of GED, and shows how we combine grounded theory, ethnography, and design thinking principles in our startegy work. Identifying the institutional ambition, framing problems, and integrating internal and external stakeholder perspectives to create a comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand, is the first step.

Accurately framing problems and transforming them into HMW questions prmotes creative reframing and expands the scope of solution exploration, leading to potentially innovative strategies.

Having set the stage with a clear understanding of the institutional ambition and framed our problems, we will turn our attention to the next phase in the GED process: developing solutions. In the next article of this series, we will dive into how potential solutions to the HMW questions are brainstormed and how a Theory of Change is developed. In part 3 we will explore how these solutions, designed to bridge the gap between the current outcomes and institutional ambitions, are transformed into actionable strategies.