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The Collective Joy of Unearthing the Right Problem to Solve

The Collective Joy of Unearthing the Right Problem to Solve

There’s a phenomenon that happens all the time in the creative field, so much and so often that we’ve had to define a process just to deal with it.

Clients come to us with self-diagnosed problems and self-prescribed solutions, and we find ourselves at an interesting crossroads at the earliest stages of the agency/client relationship: we either take their diagnosis at face value (this is the whole premise of an RFP, where both the problems and solutions are identified in great prescriptive detail, usually wrongly and incompletely), or we push back, adding necessary but unwanted tension to the relationship from the start—questioning how they arrived at their conclusion in the first place.

At first blush, perhaps this seems normal. Perhaps it even seems logical that organizations would approach us in this way. But the problem is that seldom are organizations correct in their assumptions. After all, if they knew what problem they wanted to solve, and if they knew how to solve that problem, then why would they come to us?

One answer is that they mistakenly view us as wholly executional partners selling commodified services rather than a singularly focused agency selling specialized expertise, in which case we’ve got larger issues at hand, and the client/agency fit is probably not right.

But in cases where we push back against the RFP process, or question the validity of the client’s self-diagnosis, there’s another, perhaps unexpected, mutually beneficial result—a shared joy at unearthing the right problem to solve. This is the hidden catalyst that sparks real, fundamental change, regardless of whether that change is related to revenue, lead generation, customer acquisition, or messaging.

The problem may indeed turn out to be exactly what the client posited and be rooted in brand architecture issues, or unclear positioning, or a marketing approach that caters to audience behaviors that have clearly changed over time, but knowing the true challenge we’re trying to address is critical.

Yes, a client may need a new brand identity or a new website, but those are solutions that we need to arrive at after we’ve analyzed the organization’s current state and compared it to the organization’s desired future state.

At a fundamental level, finding the right problem to solve is really just the result of a good old-fashioned gap analysis—something most companies can’t do on their own because, to use a tired cliché, they can’t see the forest through the trees.

Personally, I love the idea of introducing tension at the beginning of the client/agency journey. But it’s not because I’m being obstructionist, it’s because I feel a deep sense of loyalty toward the companies we work with, and I feel I owe it to them to push back, to challenge their assumptions—to ask the hard questions.

By its very nature, problem solving is difficult, but it’s made more difficult when we don’t take time to analyze and problem frame early in the process to ensure we’re lasering in on the right problem to solve. And we can tell you from experience that solving the wrong problem, which often comes at great cost to everyone involved, leads not to joy, but to its opposite.

Which is something, to be sure, we’d all be wise to avoid.