Houston, we have a problem, and why that's a good thing

See what BBDO Dusseldorf's Dr. Gordon Euchler, in partnership with Nils Haseborg and McKinsey's Nils Liedtke, has to say about applying creativity by focusing on the problem rather than the solution.

Consultancies, media companies, digital service providers, start-ups high on data – everybody lays claim to being part of the solution. Nobody wants to be part of a problem.  In our world of sweet talk, "problem" is a dirty word:  Instead, we say let’s call it a challenge.

The power of the problem

But how do you know you have found a solution of value if you don’t know what you are looking for? Possibly the best example for the power of great problems is the mission that Kennedy set NASA on in 1961: put a man on the moon within ten years, and return him to Earth safely. This giant problem not only inspired millions around the globe, it also ignited veritable innovations.

Discovering good problems

Marketing means good creative solutions. So, let’s use all that proven creative power to discovering the best problems.

(1)  From trend-watching to problem-watching

Companies observe trends to unlock for future growth. In line with the Jobs-To-Be-Done theory we propose applying the same consistency and intensity of observation to emerging problems. Don’t try to be first to follow a trend. Find the fascinating problem which solution can turn into a trend.

(2)  From design thinking to designing problems

Design thinking aims to find ever better solutions for user’s needs in iterations. The same iterative approach can uncover deeper problems as in the war on smoking by the government of Singapore. They identified that smoking was too easy and introduced bans. To the remaining smokers it was deemed attractive – and deterrence campaigns were introduced. Yet still many smokers were attempting to give up the habit, but were unable to see it through. This led to a campaign that did not demonize smoking, but rather motivated people making an effort to stop – and led to a threefold increase in the number of successful non-smokers.

(3)  From higher purpose to deeper problems

The way to find a company’s purpose is to look at all its activities and ask why they are the way they are. Once that question is answered, you keep asking, with childlike curiosity: "But why?", at least five times. That way you will arrive at ever more profound answers. Similarly, we encourage marketing decision-makers to advance question by question from an original problem to ever better problems. This approach helped a supermarket chain crack the challenge of increasing turnover by a triple million sum.  Rather than having to convince 100.000 loyal customers from a competitor to change their weekly shopping trip, the chain focused, instead, on making every existing customer buy just a little more on every one of their shopping trips.

Better problems

Most great strategic frameworks can be applied to uncover better problems: from the ‘‘sustainable competitive advantage’, to turning Big Data into big Problems and even zero-based budgeting. But once you found a problem, you need to determine whether it is a good problem. Being smart isn’t good enough. 

Here are some criteria from our research so far that are likely to put you on the right path:

1)    Good problems relate directly to business strategy and have economic impact.

2)    It’s people, their behavior and attitudes that are the origin of economic problems.

3)    Good problems break into uncharted territory and open up new, unexplored avenues.

4)    The best problems motivate people to find a solution. Indeed, the more people they mobilize, the better.

Become a part of the problem

The discovery of such a problem leads you into a field untouched by the hordes of competitors. And such problems impact the entire subsequent value chain. Problems thus become enormous levers for growth and deserve our creativity. They can’t be given by the servile answer-machines Alexa and Siri.  So perhaps we should soon introduce a Gold Lion for the "best problem".

Dr. Gordon Euchler is Head of Planning at BBDO Dusseldorf. Nils Haseborg is a certified training professional in Germany. Nils Liedtke is a Senior Expert and Specialized Associate Partner at McKinsey & Company.




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