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The Influencers

Why Creativity Begins with Defining the Problem

INFLUENCER: Alessandro Panella, Managing Director Serviceplan Consulting Group considers the power of reframing the question before you think of the answer

Why Creativity Begins with Defining the Problem

Employees are often told by their bosses, “Don’t come to me with a problem, but with a solution!” Wouldn’t it be refreshing if your boss were to suddenly say, “Instead of coming to me with a solution, give some thought to whether there is a better problem to solve”.

In a world in which we all eagerly search for solutions and want to implement them as quickly and effectively as possible, this kind of statement initially sounds strange. Albert Einstein would have understood the sentiment well, as he once said himself, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes formulating the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in five minutes”.

Agencies should pay much more heed to this quote. Why? Because if we take the time (together with our customers) to identify the right problem at the beginning of a project, and if we are just as passionate about formulating the problem as we are about developing the solution, we will not only reach a solution more quickly, but will also come up with several better and more innovative solutions.

The following two examples illustrate this principle very simply: If I ask you, “What is 5 + 5?”, there is only one possible answer. But if I ask you, “Which two numbers add up to 10”, there is an unlimited number of solutions. Both questions are based on simple addition and differ only in the way in which they are formulated – a simple example of ‘reframing the problem’. 

The second example shows how reframing a problem leads to more innovative solutions because you are not grappling to find a solution to the “obvious” problem. In his article entitled ‘Are You Solving the Right Problems?’, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg describes the following situation. Imagine you are the owner of an office building and your tenants are complaining about the old, extremely slow lift and how long they spend waiting for it. In this type of situation, most of us would think directly in terms of solutions: a new lift needs to be installed or the motor needs to be replaced. This solution-oriented approach is based on the idea that the slow lift is the problem:


However, when the same problem is presented to building managers, they suggest something completely different: mirrors should be hung in the lift. Why mirrors? Because behavioural studies show that people tend to lose track of time when given something utterly fascinating to look at – namely, themselves.  What's special about the mirror solution is that it does not provide a direct answer to the original problem, as it does not make the lift any faster. What this solution does is to look at the problem from a completely different perspective and redefine or reframe it.

Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy UK, gives us another inspiring example of problem reframing in his humorous TED talk. He questions the billions of pounds spent on constructing the Eurostar tunnel, putting forward the case that instead of spending billions on building a tunnel under the English Channel in order to make the journey shorter, the money could have been invested much more efficiently by giving passengers the ultimate entertainment programme on board, and thus turning every train journey into an unforgettable experience.

The ‘Try something new today’ campaign from British food retailer Sainsbury’s offers the perfect example of how problem reframing can not only lead to more creative and efficient solutions, but can also make a significant contribution to the economic success of a company. When Justin King took over as CEO in 2004, Sainsbury’s was in a sticky situation. Asda had just pipped Sainsbury’s to the post to become Britain’s second-largest supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s was more expensive than its direct competitors and its sales were falling. In order to assert himself as the new CEO and turn the business around, he needed to increase the company’s turnover by £2.5 billion within the next three years. This was no easy task, as the BBC reported at the time: “Sainsbury’s Chief Executive, Justin King, has been given one of the toughest jobs in British retailing – turning around the troubled supermarket chain”.

At the heart of the turnaround and of the new Sainsbury’s marketing and communication programme was a reframing of the problem. Instead of focussing on attracting new customers, the agency and the Sainsbury’s management team decided to increase the average receipt value of its existing customers. The insight that led to this strategically important decision came from a simple yet remarkable analysis of the target turnover:


£2.5 billion in additional revenue over the next three years sounds like a colossal sum and is not particularly inspiring to come up with a creative solution. But if you know that Sainsbury’s has 14 million customers a day and you extrapolate this figure over three years, you find out that if every Sainsbury’s customer spends £1.14 more per visit over the next three years, the sales target will be met!

This reframing turned the role of communication (and the briefing) on its head: It went from: Communication must help to generate additional turnover to the tune of £2.5 billion to: Encourage existing customers to spend a little more each time they visit Sainsbury’s. And so, the ‘Try something new today’ campaign was born. It was an idea that revolutionised far more than just Sainsbury’s communication. Not only was the campaign about encouraging its customers to try something new through communication and POS design, ‘Try something new today’ was also used to change the corporate culture of Sainsbury’s. A company-wide programme encouraged employees to make suggestions for changes or improvements to processes. ‘Try something new’ also became one of the six leadership principles for store managers.

Thanks to this reframing, the turnover goal was achieved three months earlier than planned. Sainsbury’s turnover grew over ten successive quarters and its profit increased by £475 million during the campaign (Source: IPA Sainsbury’s – How an idea helped make Sainsbury’s great again). 

The Sainsbury’s case impressively demonstrates the results that successful reframing can bring about, and also provides an important insight that we as an agency and strategic advisor should heed: 
Instead of jumping directly to finding the right solution, it is worth examining the problem together with our customers until we identify a “better problem”.

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