Navigate Uncertainty With A Clear Problem Statement

by Jay Suhr

This is part of a series about how to manage ambiguity for creatives, innovators and problem-solvers. You can find the first four posts here, herehere, and here. In this fifth entry, we explore the critical role of the problem statement and how to concoct a powerful one.

I’ve stared at various versions of creative briefs for years.

Most were prescriptive distillations of what needed to be done—long on situation analysis and short on insight. A few were intriguing, and focused on a desired shift between current and future perceptions or behaviors and the promise to move consumers. The rarest creative briefs—and strongest ones—included problem statements that triggered thinking that jumped beyond marketing and advertising.

We are at a point where powerful problem statements should be the core of creative briefs.

Problem statements are critical in today’s climate of massive change and unique challenges. How we solve problems often goes beyond the typical mechanics that have driven creative work for more than half a century, so the more detailed our clients are up front, the better the creative process goes.

Of course, this has been true in one way or another for years. If you take a look back for context, you’ll find that the more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same. Textbooks from my geeky ad student days at the University of Wisconsin have stowed away on my career ride. One is Advertising Copywriting by Philip Ward Burton. My fourth edition bears a 1978 copyright. What was a creative brief like then?

I was surprised (yet not surprised) to find the same structure used at agencies today (Objective, Target audience, Key consumer benefit, support, Tone and manner).

If my 1978 text was the fourth edition, how long has Burton’s framework been influencing the creation of advertising? Fifty years. The first edition was published in 1949; the last in 1999. (If anyone has the 1949 edition, let me know.) Since 1999, I’ve seen only nuanced changes in creative briefs, whether they come from multinational agencies, regional shops or clients.

What this means is that the industry’s approach to thinking has fallen desperately behind the pace of change. How can we catch up?

From my perspective, agencies and clients must recognize that the creative brief now extends well beyond marketing. That means the brief must shift beyond its formulaic communications construct that simply result in often brilliant advertising campaigns. Instead, the brief should focus on solving customer problems, with potential solutions spanning experiences, apps, new technologies, as well as communications. Emphasizing what a brand does is more important, more relevant, and more valuable to consumers and brands.

The modern creative brief starts with a problem statement.

The best problem statements create cues to trigger memories and solutions from the group. If a cue is too narrow, the group hones in on one type of solution (often retreading old ideas). It’s a process to free the creative ideas trapped in your own mind, and tools like the problem statement can help.

Here are some ideas to extract more insightful problem statements and more innovative solutions.

Frame the Problem from the Human Perspective. Too many briefs start with the need to counter a move by a disruptive competitor or capitalize on new technology. (“Everyone has A.I.! We need A.I.!”)

This is a trap that will limit thinking. Instead, frame the problem from the human perspective. Or as Harvard professor and author Clayton Christensen says in his jobs-to-be done framework, focus on “what customers actually need,” rather than on what “companies want to sell.” What unmet need can be fulfilled? What new capability is missing? Where can frustrating, time-consuming burdens be unloaded from customers?

By putting the customer problem first all the initial thinking is focused on the solution. The traditional creative brief is recast as a product brief or an experience brief. It’s liberating.

Mind Your P’s and Cues. With customer needs as your first priority, the next step is to craft the problem statement to ensure that its cues trigger the right kind of problem-solving.

Writing in Harvard Business Review earlier this summer, Dr. Art Markman (a marketing and psychology professor up the hill at the University of Texas), observed that challenging problems are often solved from solutions that come from inside the collective memory of the people working on the problem.

The goal is creating cues to extract those ideas. Markman believes that the problem statement is the cue to memory, and he says that teams should explore a variety of possible solutions to draw out new information.

“The most consistently creative people and groups are ones that find many different ways to describe the problem being solved,” Markman observes.

Tackle the Tough Stuff First. Now that you’re focused on the customer with a set problem statements, where do you start? Google X starts by putting the most difficult part of the assignment first on its “moonshot” projects.

“Run at all the hardest parts of the project first,” is how Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at Google X expressed it in a fascinating TED Talk on “The Unexpected Benefit of Celebrating Failure.”

He believes that it’s critical to make the hardest parts of a project the path of least resistance for the team. This makes it safe for teams to fail. Moreover, it encourages people to be audacious and go for the “big, risky things” that make people “inherently uncomfortable.”

In taking on ambiguity, Google X is clearly pushing an extreme.

“We spend most of our time breaking things,” Teller told the TED audience with a smile. “Discovering a major flaw in a project doesn’t always mean that it ends the project. Sometimes, it actually puts us on a more productive path.” For Google X, “shifting your perspective is more powerful than being smart.”

UP NEXT: A Strategist and a Creative Director Walk into a Bar. I’ll close this series with a back-and-forth with T3 Director of Strategy and Innovation, James Lanyon, on how a disciplined process liberates thinking.

Jay Suhr

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