Most of us are great problem-solvers, once we have properly defined the problem. But that is the hardest, or perhaps most overlooked, part of the process. Sometimes we’re solving things at the wrong level, something above the root cause level—meaning we’re attacking a symptom. Sometimes we’re looking for solutions in the altogether wrong area, because our assumptions, mindsets and biases point us in the wrong direction. Sometimes we pour so much time and energy into solutions we forget the original problem entirely. (Perhaps that helps explain feature creep!) And sometimes we don’t cast our net widely enough. As MIT’s Peter Senge says, “we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never get solved.”
I asked design thinkers David Sherwin and Justin Maguire of frog design to help me unpack this dilemma. Designers like David and Justin are in the business of creating and engineering new products, services, and processes for clients. They understand, though, that people don’t want products and services, they want solutions to problems. It’s the old but relevant cliche: we don’t really want a shovel, we want a hole in the ground.
Question: What problem-solving advice can you give us from the world of design?
Answer: Without a doubt, it’s that you must first agree on the problem you’re trying to solve. That sounds simple and easy, right? Not necessarily. For example, a client came to us recently and said, “We’d like your help in crafting a new brand proposition for our flagship product. We were thinking that repositioning our brand with new messaging would help us to increase our market share during a time when people are being stingy with new purchases. By revamping our existing marketing collateral…”
As they continued to explain the rationale behind their decisions and the expected impact it would have on their overall business worldwide, we had a sinking feeling that they were grasping at solutions to an improperly framed problem rather than grounding their efforts in a long-term business strategy informed by design.
Question: OK, so in this situation, what’s a designer to do? How do you move from solving what seems like the wrong problem to answering the right one?
Answer: You have to dig a bit, ask the right questions, so the actual challenge gets described. The question you need to get to the bottom of is, “what do you really want?” But to get at the real answer requires digging, because you’ll inevitably get quick answers that aren’t immediately helpful in solving the problem.
So in this case, we needed to first find the right direction. By establishing a key area to target would suggest the kinds of higher-order problems that might be ready to be solved by design. To do that, we had to back away from what they were asking us to do and begin thinking about their problems as a space through we which we could all maneuver. We asked them how they thought their new marketing material might solve their short-term business needs. When they were finished, we asked a rather pointed question: “How does that support your overall long-term business goals?”
Question: They had already semi-settled on a solution, and you were trying to understand their rationale, tease out their point of view regarding an awareness strategy.
Answer: Right. And their response was “We’re rated as highest in quality of service and overall value three years in a row.” In other words, it was their perceived birthright. That was a clue, but it didn’t really tell us what they were really after.
We soon discovered that they wanted to increase their overall service revenues by a few percentage points. And when you’re operating in billions of dollars in service revenue, such gains are hard-fought in cutthroat markets that change daily. So as our conversation continued to unfold, we probed and challenged their assumptions that an awareness strategy would completely meet their business goal over the course of the next year.
Question: What was the result of that dialogue?
Answer: After a few more conversations, we came to a shared understanding of the real problems before them and that the impact they were seeking would come from a separate workstream, focused on displacing competition in new markets, not simply an awareness strategy. That was the actual solution to the real problem: a stable uptick in service revenue. And that’s a much more interesting problem to solve!
What I took away from this example reinforced for me just how important it is to first understand and agree on the problem you’re trying to solve, and how it requires courage to ask the hard questions that will allow you to do that. Clear-eyed solutions depend on our ability to ask questions like “how do we know that to be true?” and “what are we really trying to achieve?” And frankly, these are kinds of questions we too often forget to ask, or are too afraid to ask.
Conclusion: A design thinker cannot be a “yes man.”
Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. He blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.