Sometimes it’s the haystack you need to find, not the needle

“What is it you do, Ewan?” Until last week, I’d not been able to say without my buttocks firmly clenching in ritual embarrassment at the simple inability to sum up what pays my mortgage, feeds my kids and keeps me in adequate stock of Claret. Now I can: I help people find the right haystack.

Ewan McIntosh
Sep 3, 2016 · 5 min read

Every call I take to bring in new business to our firm starts the same way. The prospective client tells me what they’re up against, and why they think they need us to come and join them. About twenty minutes later, we’re both laughing, nodding our heads and getting enthusiastic as I drop the bombshell:

“With all due respect, this is probably not the problem you’re looking for.”

These are not the problems you’re looking for

In the end, it is rare that what is set out in the original brief is exactly — or anywhere near close to — what they end up getting out of our relationship. So telling your prospective client they’re wrong on day one is far better than revealing they were wrong at the end of a failed project. And it’s not arrogance or Jedi-like NLP — there’s just a better than 51% chance that the original brief is going to be wrong.

We’ve had huge success by starting with the assumption that all assumptions at the start of the project are wrong. I want to share how.

Most clients want a pre-contract brief to include blow-by-blow accounts of almost every minute we’ll spend together. Without it, they won’t be able to sell it to the Board, the Bursar, the finance office, their team. They want objectives and deliverables, timelines. They want it to state which haystack it is that we’re going to work on.

We don’t.

We want the first third of a contract to be unwritten, based on fathoming what the brief could be, on finding the problem we’re going to solve. It takes at least a third of the time to discover the juiciest problem, to find that haystack. And because we’ve never seen your field of haystacks before, we see stuff that you’ve never spotted. Anyone can learn to do the same by honing in on their observation and questioning skills, a lot, but there is an added value in being fresh to a scene — external folk spot what your tribe will not.

In the education field, schools and universities insist on starting everything in August (in the Northern hemisphere) or January (in the Southern hemisphere), when people are tired/hungover/still in holiday mode.

We don’t.

We want to plan the timeline based on what it’s actually going to take to engage the community or team in the challenge that we end up identifying. Two thirds of the timeline are unplannable until we design the brief around the problems you found with us (above).

This headline on our new company homepage has attracted the most recognition from people we’ve worked with in the past: this is what we do.

In six-and-a-half years, precisely three clients have complained about this inevitable twist and turn in their journey. Instead, they actually want to invest the efforts of their teams, their leadership, their resources, cash and time in seeking out a golden needle in entirely the wrong haystack — a haystack often built by another consulting team who have since headed off to their next victim with a one-day-wonder workshop. One sacked us. We sacked the other two.

People love the idea of problem-finding. When we launched the concept for schools in 2011, we saw 10,000 students in just one month who took up the challenge to find more meaningful problems to solve. They wanted their teachers to concentrate on problem-finding, rather than problem-solving:

And yet, when we started with this way of working with clients, putting problem-finding forward as the thing they were buying, it was an upward struggle. People talked a good game about their problem-finding, their design thinking and user-centred organisations, but when it came to committing to the real deal, they were nervous.

We’ve spent six years encouraging teams to start with one assumption: all our initial assumptions are likely to be wrong.

How do you test your initial assumptions? Well, it’s not by having experts tell you what the future will look like, or what you need. It’s by having experts show you great tools and push you with tough questions through a genuine, tough-thinking design thinking process:

By stripping situations back to their first principles through deep, immersive observations, interviews, sketching and research, teams are much more likely to find problems they hadn’t expected. With some external help, defining those problems well can excite a community into action to solve them. Ingenious ideas, several potential solutions at a time for each problem in hand, can be prototyped over weeks, not years. Several golden needles, not just one rusty one in the wrong place, will end up flourishing.

It’s allowed a school in China to rethink its direction in ways it hadn’t been able to predict, and Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital reinvented what learning for sick kids should look like. Eight emergency services in Victoria, Australia, worked out ingenious ways to collaborate quicker in an emergency, and an American school district invested their cash in different challenges from normal, saving millions of dollars and stimulating innovative activity in scores of their schools.

We’ve designed our new website with their stories of success, and we’re revamping our NoTosh Lab to help people take the first step for themselves. At the end of the day, though, it requires the people who normally take large organisational decisions to take a deep breath, and admit that what they believe to be true is very likely to be based on assumptions. After another deep breath they need to encourage their teams to strip those assumptions down, to hone in on the correct haystack hiding within.

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We see a world in which people have the creative confidence to find their place in a team and achieve something bigger than they are. You can learn more in our Lab at

Ewan McIntosh

Written by

I help people find their place in a team to achieve something bigger than they are.



We see a world in which people have the creative confidence to find their place in a team and achieve something bigger than they are. You can learn more in our Lab at

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