How to Reframe a Problem Using a Duncker Diagram

by Mark Mateski on August 30, 2008

In many cases, a red team will benefit from reassessing the scope of a problem. This is particularly true when the attacker and defender’s points of view fail to align. The Duncker diagram is one way to reframe a problem and identify these possible asymmetries. It is also a good technique for generating creative solution alternatives.
      A full explanation of the Duncker diagram is available in Fogler and LeBlanc’s book, Strategies for Creative Problem Solving. Here, I outline the technique and provide a simple example of how to apply it.
      The traditional process of problem solving generally moves from a present state to a desired state, and, when using this process, you will are likely to embed the present state within a problem statement. Consider, for instance, the following problem: “It is increasingly difficult to penetrate the defender’s fortifications.” In the present state, then, you cannot penetrate the defender’s fortifications easily.
      In addition, the problem solver will often specify or imply a desired state when describing the problem. The desired state implied within the problem statement above is the ability to easily penetrate the defender’s fortifications. The trick, then, is to reach this desired state efficiently and effectively. One strategy might be to deploy a new kind of siege tower. Another might be to dig a tunnel beneath the fortifications. A third might be to blow a hole in the fortification wall, and so on.
      What if it were possible, however, to solve the problem without achieving the desired state? After all, your ultimate goal is probably broader than simply penetrating the fortifications. What if you could accomplish this broader goal in other ways–ways in which you circumvent or even ignore the fortifications? This suggests two things.

  • First, you may have initially defined the problem too narrowly.
  • Second, by considering the question “How can I solve the problem without achieving the desired state?” you unlock a new class of solution alternatives.

      When using the Duncker diagram, you draft two tree-based hierarchies, each of which employs a different general solution. In the left-hand hierarchy, your general solution is to achieve the explicit or implied desired state. Using the same example as above, your left-hand general solution might be to “Penetrate the enemy’s fortifications easily and effectively.” Beneath this general solution, you then specify functional solutions (ways to achieve the general solution) and for each function solution, any number of specific solutions (ways to achieve the functional solutions). Again, your functional solutions might be to

  • deploy a new siege tower,
  • dig a tunnel, or
  • blow a hole in the fortification wall.

Your specific solutions would then unfold detailed ways of accomplishing each of these functional solutions. For example, you might dig a tunnel under the wall using specially trained tunnel-digging dogs.
      The right-hand hierarchy represents an alternative approach. As noted above, your general solution here is to solve the problem without achieving the explicit or implied desired state. For example, your right-hand general solution might be to “Defeat the enemy without penetrating the enemy’s fortifications.” Your functional solutions might then be to induce your enemy to

  • surrender willingly without being defeated militarily,
  • dismantle the fortifications, or
  • abandon the fortifications and emerge for open battle.

As with the left-hand side, you then describe specific solutions for achieving these functional solutions (which you need not limit to three).
      Once you have built your left- and right-hand diagrams, Fogler and LeBlanc suggest that you attempt to redefine the problem. In this example, the initial problem statement was clearly too narrow. You might reframe it as “Our enemy is resisting our will and preventing us from achieving our aims.” You can then run through the Duncker diagrams again and generate a new set of solution alternatives. You might find that the revised problem statement is still too narrow or even too broad. Either way, you are free to iterate until you are satisfied that you have generated a sufficient set of solution alternatives.
      As a red teamer, you may want to use the Duncker diagram when you suspect that the attacker and defender’s goals do not align. A common risk in all adversarial assessments is to assume that the attacker’s objective is simply the obverse of the defender’s. Possible asymmetries may be difficult to detect intuitively, and the Duncker diagram gives you a method of systematically uncovering and communicating these asymmetries.

Further Reading:

Fogler and LeBlanc, Strategies for Creative Problem Solving, 2007.

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