I've used a "mental framework" to help me decide how to categorize and solve problems for a while now. I think that it comes from years working with computer systems and trying to unravel the actual "problem" when systems or processes don't work. So often it turns out to be something other than the software that is actually at fault.
My preferred analogy is a wedding cake. Basically a wedding cake is just a multi-tiered structure where the tiers are connected but still somewhat independent from each other. I guess you could use some other analogy but the wedding cake has worked for me. I like to use a four tier wedding cake where the tiers are:
1. At the top - Strategy
2. Next down - Process / Culture
3. Next down - software applications / tools
4. At the bottom - data
This analogy has the benefit of indicating that the four "layers" are distinct yet inter-related, and interdependent. Also, the layers move from more "strategic" to more "tactical" from the top down.
It seems to me that quickly assessing a "problem" in most areas of a business will inevitably lead you to one of these four issues - sometimes several at once. Many times a "problem" in a business area will seem to be data or software related, when in actuality it is a cultural or strategic misalignment.
As I said, I use this wedding cake analogy to help me evaluate and assess problems we encounter in our clients, and then I use it as a way to communicate the problem using analogies that are less technical in nature. By demonstrating how a CRM system failure is not a problem with the actual software, but with the business processes it support and ultimately a failure of the management team to completely support the initiative, you can indicate the root causes of problems that may lie far beyond the initial symptom, and indicate the aspects of the business that need to change to completely solve the problem.
I think in our modern businesses many challenges or problems are intertwined in several aspects - strategy, culture, process, and computer systems. Far too frequently we choose to solve what is really a symptom of the problem (bad data in a CRM system, for example) rather than the root causes of the problem (poor cultural adaptation and lack of management buy-in to the CRM system). Forcing a problem and its unravelling into a mental framework may seem a bit artificial, but it leads to better system wide thinking and a more complete solution to the problem. Often an analogy like a wedding cake helps the users understand the problem and how the parts interact as well.
I'd be interested to hear from you - what analogies do you use to frame problems and begin to define the interactions and potential solutions? How do you encourage sytem-wide thinking and problem solving, and how do you use analogies to communicate to your customers?