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.