Stop problem solving

It’s time to rediscover the lost art of finding better problems to solve

We take great pride as an industry in our ability to solve problems. It’s how we tend to frame our capabilities to clients. It’s how we describe what we do to our non-industry friends. It’s how we award (and reward) ourselves across strategy and creative awards.

Yet, when you think about it, problem solving is a horrible way to think about what any of us do. It is reactive. It firmly places us in a pigeonhole as a contractor, with all the issues of commoditisation of which we are too well aware. It limits our influence and potential in the world and in our clients’ organisations. It focuses on our superpower of distillation rather than our other, arguably more valuable, superpower: the commercial value we create through expansive, imaginative thinking that can lead not just to more effective solutions but to new opportunities for our clients. We need to stop taking briefs at face value. Far too often we accept the same old briefs — raise awareness, change perception, etc. — at face value. We solve the same problems — problems that far too often have far too little potential impact on the real commercial problem. The first job to be done on any assignment is to look for the best problem to solve. I’d argue that our value truly lies in being problem finders, not problem solvers. So, how do we get better at problem finding?

First, we can take a lesson from, of all places, the car production line in Japan immediately after the Second World War. As part of its effort to reinvigorate itself, Toyota introduced the approach of kaizen (simply meaning ‘change for better’). Overall, this was about ensuring continuous improvement but one of its key tenets was the Five Whys technique. Taiichi Ohno, the architect of the Toyota Production System in the 1950s, encouraged his team to “observe the production floor without preconception. Ask ‘why’ five times about every matter … by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.” He goes on to offer the example of a robot stopping. By asking why five times, the problem to be solved becomes clearer: no filter on the oil pump, rather than an overloaded circuit to which initial analysis would point. The ability to ask why until you can ask why no more is an incredibly important skill we forget far too often. When we do this, we begin to find the real, root problem we need to solve, rather than the symptom that is far too frequently the result of the typical problem-solving approach.

The second way to get better at problem finding is to think more imaginatively about the opportunity from the perspective of the human. Far too often, in our quest for distinctiveness of positioning, we forget Ted Levitt’s timeless maxim that people don’t buy products; they buy what they do for them. A simple way to find better problems is to use the Jobs To Be Done approach popularised by Clay Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma. This framework is particularly useful in helping incumbent businesses defend against the threat of the new or, conversely, helping new businesses expose the weaknesses of incumbents. The methodology is based on interviewing people who’ve recently switched brands in order to understand the weaknesses of their past brand choice (what pushed them) and the magnetism of their new choice (what attracted them). In essence, it’s the story of why someone might choose to switch or change their behaviour.

The beauty of this approach is the brutal simplicity of how it defines the problem: when [description of the situation] I want to [the motivation] so I can [expected outcome]. For example, Google didn’t try to simply put Microsoft Word online; instead, it found a bigger problem to solve: when working on a document, I want to create it together with my team so I can collaborate more efficiently and quickly. There’s lots of tools, tips and tricks online about this methodology and it’s one I’d urge you to explore.

Finding better problems is about asking different questions. Far too frequently we constrain our imaginations by asking the same old questions (to the same people, but that’s a piece for another time) and not looking for new ways to interrogate a challenge. We use the same reference points to solve a problem — the competitors in the thing we call the category, award show annuals, etc. — and, unsurprisingly, proffer increasingly similar solutions to the same problem. If we look in different places, and look at those places in different ways, we are far more likely to find better problems to solve.

This piece was originally published in Admap

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