Someone once said, and I highly endorse, “a problem well stated is a problem half solved.” In my practice, I always start by writing the “situation analysis” for my clients’ needs. This process begins by asking “why” in a variety of different ways—why plus who, what, when and where.
The city of Cincinnati asked why when they were trying to figure out how to improve their reputation for travelers coming to the city. The answer for them was that they weren’t providing enough information to the city’s key ambassadors—taxi drivers. You see, they figured out what George Burns knew years ago when he said, “Too bad that all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxicabs and cutting hair.” Taxicab drivers are opinion leaders or can be for new visitors to a city. The city threw a party for taxicab drivers and their significant others and used the evening to highlight the great resources the city offered visitors and asked cabbies to offer this information to visitors. Research showed that cab drivers welcomed the information and that visitation to cultural institutions rose as did the reputation of the city.
In his book A Kick In The Seat Of The Pants, Roger von Oech says, “When you think you’ve found one solution to your problem, always, always look for another.”
Or as Robert Hargove in Masterful Coaching suggests: “When you’re facing a problem, the last thing you should do is find a solution. The first step is to state the problem in a single sentence.” He points to a case study involving George Lois, a marketer, who was trying to figure out how to sell Volkswagens in New York. After a month of study, he called the CEO and said “I’ve got it.” The CEO is said to have responded, “Finally, a solution.” “No,” Lois said, “I’ve got the problem: How to sell a German car in a Jewish town.” He could then go on and look for solutions to the right problem and did.
When clients call me and ask for a public relations campaign, they can usually expect a “why” question. Why do you want to send a press release? Why do you think you are having protesters challenge you? What do you think should be done? Why? Who is involved? Who else should we involve? Why?
These questions are not asked because I need to be a pest. They are asked because we need to state the problem in broad terms in order to get to a single sentence statement of the problem or need. I then review the “situation analysis” with the client to check whether I have stated the problem correctly in their opinion. If not, we then search for the correct statement. Once we concur, we can accurately move forward to look for solutions (note the emphasis on the plural).
As John Budd writes in his PR Reporter supplement Plain Talk, if you don’t ask “why?”:
You are committing yourself to orthodoxy, a cancer of creativity
You’ll be imitative, not innovative
You’ll be trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s answers
You may reach “par”, but you’ll never achieve a “birdie” or an “eagle”
You’ll never experience the psychological challenge of creativity nor gain the psychic lift of achievement. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the ‘60’s and learned to question everything—even the most obvious, but I have come to love the question “why?” and how it always leads to creativity in problem solving.