November 29

Bringing Clarity to Chaos, Part II: Creative Problem Solving

Bringing Clarity to Chaos, Part II: Creative Problem Solving

Creative (adj): Relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something

I have a pet peeve about the narrow use of the word “creative” in business today. “Creatives” are the artists, graphic designers and ad copy writers. “Creative assets” refer to the images, videos, fonts and other files that are used to produce collateral for the business. While linking the word with the visual, “artsy” side of business is appropriate, creativity truly belongs everywhere from the front line to the back office. So, with all due respect to my artsy friends, I’m taking the word back!  Imagination and original ideas, a.k.a. creativity, are essential for making great organizations tick, especially in creative problem solving.

This is an introduction to the creative process we use for solving business problems. It consists of four broad stages that we will explore in more depth in future posts:

Uncover the Chaos

Embrace the Chaos

Form a Framework

Devise Your Plans & Stride Confidently

Uncover the Chaos

In a prior post, I described the tools we use to help define business problems. The common element in these tools and techniques—from SWOT analysis to competitive and comparative studies, to customer feedback—is asking questions from many angles.

Stakeholder workshops are a great way to begin the process. Depending on your situation, stakeholders might be your executive team, board members, key constituents, or members of your department. Assemble a group of people who all have a stake in the success of your endeavor, but with diverse experience. Agreement on the business problem to be solved and the urgency of the solution is important. Beyond that, wide-ranging ideas and opinions should be encouraged at this stage.

While stakeholder workshops are useful for zeroing in on the issues and potential solutions, they aren’t the only research tool we use in the discovery phase. Ideas and issues raised during these workshops lead to new inquiries, such as:

  • What do current customers think of your products or services?
  • Why do some slip away?
  • What lessons can we learn from your competition?
  • What sort of first impression does your organization present?

It is important to make sure that all perspectives are considered, not just those with experience like yours.

Uncovering chaos is messy, but there is a method to the madness! This is the best time to open the spigot and let the thoughts flow. They can be shaped and molded later.

Embrace the Chaos

Imagine a room filled with stakeholders, walls plastered with post-it lists and random thoughts, people engaged in sometimes rambling conversations, lots of open-ended questions. Do you love it or hate it? Think it’s useful or a waste of time? Chances are, there are people in that room with opposing views about the utility of the exercise, and that creative tension is a good thing.

This can be an unsettling stage in the creative process but it is well worth resisting the temptation to rush into a solution that doesn’t fit. That moment of clarity may take time, and it is unlikely to hit you without concerted effort. It’s a process, not the end-result. Roll with it and let your imaginations fly!

“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.” –Carl Jung

Form a Framework

This is where you all get on the same page, and those on your team who have been pining for a solution finally get some satisfaction. A good framework gives context to your work and guidance for your future actions. The nature of the framework depends on the situation, but the key is for it to provide a common sense of direction.

How do you choose a framework? There are as many paradigms out there as there are groups. Searching the internet, you will see innumerable examples of framework images with various shapes, arrows and grids designed to encapsulate an organization’s strategy. Some are graphically beautiful; others are very basic. The key is to provide a common basis to help individuals work more effectively and efficiently toward a common goal.

“You don’t have to be a genius or a visionary or even a college graduate to be successful. You just need a framework and a dream.” –Michael Dell

Devise Your Plans & Stride Confidently

With a solid framework in place, you can now flesh out your plans and step confidently in your new direction. We like to remind clients that we consider plans to be living, breathing documents that shouldn’t collect dust on a shelf. Conditions change, and plans can’t be static. That’s why a framework can be so powerful – it will give you that extra confidence to make mid-course corrections when necessary.

“It is a bad plan that admits to no modification.” –Publius Syrus, 85-43BC

November 15

The Wisdom of Our Forbears: Enduring Lessons

The Wisdom of Our Forbears: Enduring Lessons

“Ve grow too soon oldt, und too late schmart.” It’s a saying I remember from childhood excursions to Pennsylvania Dutch country, not far from my family’s suburban Philadelphia home. It was printed on Amish-themed souvenirs that were mostly schlocky, but I’ve always loved the blunt truth in the old proverb. As we enter a season filled with family and nostalgia, I am truly thankful for the wisdom of our forbears.

I would like to share a few old chestnuts that not only stand the test of time, but have grown even more profound than when I first heard them.

You have to eat a peck of dirt in your life.

Did you ever hear that one? We didn’t have the option to buy triple-washed greens from the grocery store, we climbed trees and dug holes outside, and the 5-second rule was in full force in our household. We survived just fine, and now vindication has arrived in the form of medical research! It turns out that we can undermine our own health by being too clean, destroying the rich microbiome that is now linked with everything from a healthy immune system to weight control to strong brain function. I don’t know if “a peck” is right, but exposure to some good old dirt during our lifetimes seems like a good thing.

Necessity is the mother of invention. 

History is riddled with examples of lasting inventions that solved a pressing problem. Scottish veterinarian John Dunlop invented the “pneumatic tyre” to cushion his son’s tricycle for taking on the cobblestone streets of 1880’s Belfast. Frustrated with inconvenient and unreliable clothing fasteners, 20th-century Swiss engineer George de Mestral hit upon the idea for Velcro after observing burrs stuck to his trousers.

The creativity of people today in solving issues of all descriptions continues to amaze me. One only need to look at Pinterest for creative DIY ideas for decorating on a dime. In the wake of Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico, Google’s parent company Alphabet has stepped in to deploy large helium balloons for temporary internet access.

None of us wishes for inconvenience, constraints, necessity. But we humans do seem to have some of our most inspired inventions when staring down a pressing problem.

Don’t assume anything, it makes an a** out of u and me.

It is easy to make wrong assumptions about people, especially in this age when email and text dominate communications. Face-to-face and telephone interactions are becoming rare breeds. How often have you misinterpreted emotion or intent because you can’t read faces and body language? Or hear inflections in the other party’s voice? Texts and emails have also become very informal. Did your coworker choose that nerd emoji as a compliment or scarcasm? How often do you reread an email or text wondering what the author really meant after autocorrect got into the act?  Check out  if you have a few minutes for a good laugh.

Patience is a virtue.

FrustrationI could use a little patience right now as I wait for my computer to reboot after a mysterious crash. Our technical gadgets and modern comforts completely spoil us. For the most part, they just work without much effort on our part, and they work great. So when they fail—even temporarily—our frustrations mount. I have no doubt that our ancestors would think our lack of patience hilarious!


What pearls of wisdom are still relevant for you with the passing of time? Try sharing some as you pass the Thanksgiving gravy. Have a great holiday and enjoy the conversation!

October 4

Bringing Clarity to Chaos, Part I: Defining The Problem

Bringing Clarity to Chaos, Part I: Defining The Problem

We often say to colleagues that we “bring clarity to chaos” when working with our clients’ larger business questions. But aside from an alliterative phrase that works in many situations, what does “bringing clarity to chaos” really mean? Are we implying that our clients are chaotic? (Absolutely not!) How do we define clarity?

In a nutshell, we define “bringing clarity to chaos” as using a disciplined approach to diagnose our clients’ business problems and develop workable strategies and tactics to move forward. In this first of a series of articles, we hope to illuminate the approach and offer some useful techniques that you can apply to your own situation.

The Discipline: Defining The Problem

Graphic: Defining the Problem

Some lessons are timeless.

It would take a bit of head scratching for me to remember how to solve inscribed angle problems, but my high school geometry teacher taught me a lesson in disciplined problem solving that I will never forget. When working on a problem, she taught us to make a side note and break it down into three components, filling in as we went:

  1. What are we given?
  2. What are we asked to find?, and
  3. What tools (e.g., formulas and rules) do we have that might apply?

By breaking down the problem this way you achieve two things: you clear away the clutter to see an easier path to resolution, and you establish a standard against which to test the final solution. In high school math, the clues are generally easy to find and the problems readily resolved. In life, the path can be less straightforward, and yet the general discipline still applies: first, define the problem!

What are we given?

When working with a client to define their brand, develop a marketing plan, solve a business problem or develop a campaign, one of our first steps is to lay out what we have to work with: the “given.” Baseline facts such as the size and age of your organization, the core business mission and a high-level articulation of how the business competes are important, but merely scratch the surface.

Our goal is to more fully characterize the “given” by driving toward answers to the following:

  • How do you articulate your key points of differentiation?
  • Describe your competitive environment.
  • What are your constraints?
  • Is your brand well-established and in line with the products or services that are being delivered?

What are we asked to find?

What are your goals for the organization and/or the specific project? A combination of hard and soft goals is desirable. In our practice, we encounter three general types of projects, and we characterize the goals for each type differently:

Solving Business Problems

Symptoms of the problem almost always provide clues to the desired outcomes. Some examples of wide-ranging symptoms include a thinning sales pipeline, membership decline, and lack of name recognition. While the symptoms might help to unlock goals, it is important to fully explore the problem before jumping to proposed solutions. It is tempting to conclude that because your pipeline is shrinking, you need to advertise more, increase the size of your sales force, or both. While those might be viable solutions, they are one-dimensional and lack direction. Are you merely treating the fever, or going after the infection?

Branding & Refreshment Projects

Brands, websites & printed materials all have a shelf life and demand periodic review to ensure they are still working for you. The goal is not to simply replace materials with a new look. Demand of any refreshment project that the new materials (e.g., website, branding package, collateral) work harder for you than what you have today. Will the new materials reflect who you are today & help you move forward? Do they provide new ways to engage with your customers or clients? How well do they tell your story? Can you maintain them within your budget? Consider all of these factors as you define the goals of your refresh project.

Campaign Development & Management

For narrowly focused tactical projects, make the goals very specific. Examples are increasing web traffic, email open rates, program attendance, or call rates. A key requirement for these tactical projects is that they support the larger strategy of your organization. A beautiful advertising campaign is a waste of time and money if it isn’t in sync with your long-term strategy.

What tools can we apply?

How can we best go about solving the problem? Each situation is unique and calls for a versatile toolbox. We use a mix of client and stakeholder workshops, interviews, market research, competitive and comparative analyses, SWOT analysis, focus groups, surveys, and testing. No problem requires every tool, but it’s a rare problem that only requires one. Beware of the singular solution: if it seems too easy, it probably is! Triangulation—using multiple methods in an investigation—is a well-known qualitative research concept that helps to deepen understanding and improve credibility of the results. When the results revealed by different methods begin to overlap, you know that you are on the right track.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” —T. S. Eliot

Beyond Defining The Problem: Next Steps

All this just to define the problem? How do we go about solving problems? This is where the fun begins! In the next article, I will describe how we uncover that chaos so we can begin to tamp it down.