How problem definition will help you find the real solution

Katie Sweet

I’m the type of person who really doesn’t like meetings. I appreciate their necessity and often enjoy spending time with my colleagues during them, but as a rule I try to limit the amount of time I spend in meetings so I can get back to my “real work.” That means if I’m the one leading the meeting, I try to move us quickly along to a resolution with clear action items. I want to get in, make a plan, and get out so we can execute and have something tangible to show for our time.

But in the interest of saving time, how often have I rushed to a solution without fully understanding the problem? Dozens of times, at least. And I’ve seen others around me do the same — whether they’re trying to end a meeting like me, they already have a solution in mind, or they’re just busy and don’t have the headspace to think too much. Actually, I’ve been guilty of all of the above.

Zappi President Ryan Barry interviewed Been There Done That’s COO Giles Jepson about the importance of problem definition on a recent episode of Inside Insights. Giles had a lot of great insights to share around this topic, so let’s get into some of them here.

🎙️ Why you should fall in love with the problem, not the solution

If you prefer to listen, check out the full podcast interview with Giles.

Why are we bad at defining problems?

Let’s start by defining the problem we have with problem definition. Giles and Ryan explored a lot of reasons we tend to be bad at this:

People do not value thinking time, they value action and solution mode.

- Giles Jepson

  1. We often don’t want to spend the time it takes to properly define a problem because we don’t see that as a valuable use of time.

  2. We can sometimes be overly confident that we already understand the problem so we jump straight to a solution (and in many cases, we fall in love with this solution and don’t want to let it go).

  3. We can sometimes try to manage upwards by thinking about what our boss would want to see. In these cases, we propose solutions that would satisfy someone else without paying too much attention to the problem.

  4. Senior leaders can sometimes give a solution to their teams, and it’s up to their teams to work backwards to the problem to rationalize this new strategy.

I’ve seen all of these happen firsthand, and I’ve done a few of them myself.

What happens without a defined problem?

If the brief is crap, you’re gonna get crap out.

- Giles Jepson

So what happens when you don’t clearly understand your problem? In the world of marketing and insights, it often results in bad briefs. Brands put together briefs to agencies that they think will help them get to a solution, but if the brand team doesn’t fully understand what they’re trying to accomplish, the agency can’t help them accomplish it.

The BetterBriefs Project estimated that a third of marketing budgets go to waste because of bad briefs. And most marketers (80%) think they can put together a good brief, but only 10% of agencies agree with that. Clearly, the problem definition problem can hit the bottom line.

But it’s not just about wasting your budget. Your time is affected as well. If you barrel ahead with a solution or put together a bad brief without fully defining your problem, you’ll likely end up wasting more time than the time you would have spent defining the problem from the start.

How can you get better at problem definition?

Been There Done That has put together a clear process around problem definition. They run two-to-three hour sessions to help a company properly define their problem (Giles says it can often feel like a strategy session) and follow their own framework called SOLVE (which is an acronym for Situation, Obstacles, Landscape, View points and End frame).

You can do something similar yourself (or you can always call up Been There Done That for help!).

But you can also make strides in this direction without a formal session. Keep an eye out for moments when you and your team don’t really understand the problem you’re trying to solve. Be brave and ask people to slow down for a second. Ask a few questions to get everyone talking about the problem, and you may all quickly realize that you’re not as aligned as you thought.

Giles’ advice to help with this is to change the way you approach your work (and maybe even your life). He references Matthew Syed’s growth mindset approach here, specifically his focus on becoming a “learn-it-all” rather than a “know-it-all.” One person could never have all the answers and there’s so much we all don’t know yet.

So rather than approach a situation like you already know everything, approach with curiosity to learn more about it. Identify what you don’t know, and work toward changing that. Then focus on hiring people who also think like this. As Giles says, these are the people who will change the world — the curious people who just want to learn.

You can use this mindset to think about consumer insights too. When you don’t have a clear problem defined, you may come into a scenario with a solution you’re already attached to. In those cases, you might be tempted to use insights simply to justify the solution you already fell in love with.

But if you approach the situation with curiosity and an open mind, you’re more likely to learn something about your consumers through insights that can help you get a great solution — and help you create brands, ads and innovative products people love.

Final thoughts

After listening to this episode, I started identifying poorly defined problems all over the place. Hopefully this blog post will inspire you to do something about it like it did for me.

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