“How do you solve problems?” That was my opening question for every interview I did for my book (What's Your Problem). I generally got a deer-in-the-headlights response or, during phone interviews, total silence. Most people didn’t know how to answer. They said something like, “That’s a really good question” or, “I never thought about it that way.”

However, once they had time to think about the question, they described following a process, which I agree is the right approach. They just hadn’t realized it’s the process they have been following. Here’s a recap of the various steps people shared with me.

Step 1. Define the problem.

Defining the problem may seem an obvious place to start solving it, but it’s surprising how many people ignore this step or give it short shrift. As discussed in the other blog posts, don’t allow yourself to be distracted by symptoms. You must get to the root cause of those symptoms, which is the actual problem.

How the problem is defined has more impact than any other factor on how—or whether—the problem is solved. Everyone involved, from the head of marketing to the marketing assistants, must agree on what the problem is. I highly recommend taking the time to write out the problem in the form of a question. It’s a surprisingly helpful exercise for aligning a small group of people. 

For example, you might write down, “People don’t know our company, so they’re not comfortable buying from us” or “Our clients don’t believe what our sales team promises. How do we get that trust back?”

Be sure not to define the problem as a marketing problem. There are no marketing problems; there are only business problems that marketing can help solve.

In step one, you also need to identify the one or two metrics related to the problem. Are sales down? If so, by how much? Do you have a client retention issue? OK, how big is the problem? If the answer to such questions isn’t clear, then you don’t really have a problem.

Step 2. Understand the impact of finding a solution.

What is the expected business impact of solving the problem? And, just as important, what do you expect to happen if the problem is not solved? This is the time to ask whether the problem is even worth solving. Although asking this question is counterintuitive, great problem solvers know when to step away. 

If you sense that the effort required to solve the problem might exceed the value of the solution, have a conversation with your boss. You can frame it like this: “I’ve spent some time looking into this problem, and I suspect that the benefits of solving it won’t be that great. I’m confident that I/my team can solve it, and here’s what the effort would involve. . . . I think that our time would be better used to focus on other things. Do you agree?” 

Thinking through and communicating the costs and benefits of solving the problem is not only a way to be sure the company is using its resources (that is, your and the team’s time) well but also a way to find out how committed company leadership is to finding a solution. Clarifying the future beneficial impact of solving the problem also ignites the excitement of those tasked with applying their energy to solving it.

For example, if you’re trying to solve a customer-acquisition problem, you need to outline the financial upside. Will a 5 percent increase in sales result in an additional $2 million in revenue per year? If so, all of a sudden, a marketing expense of $250,000 feels like more of a wise investment than an expense.

Without demonstrating the impact of solving the problem, your business problem might fade into the background as more pressing issues are addressed.

Step 3. Gather data and insights.

It’s easy to be distracted by useless data, so sift through it and understand it. And then determine if the information is helpful or immaterial. If it’s just anecdotal, for example, it could even be misleading. If you have access to technical resources, have them analyze the data with you. 

A litmus test for evaluating data: “Does this data help us think differently? Will it take us in a different direction or lead to questions we haven’t thought of?” That’s the kind of information to look for. Fight the urge to look for data that support your preconceptions; they will just reinforce how you already think and won’t help you think of other, perhaps better solutions. If instead you examine data purely to learn, you’ll move closer to a good solution.

Step 4. Develop potential solutions using problem-solving techniques.

This is where the rubber meets the road. Developing potential solutions, usually the most challenging part of solving the problem, is more art than science. There’s no guaranteed approach to developing solutions. However, you should be adept at a variety of techniques that will help you to develop potential solutions—including the five whys, root cause analysis, journey mapping, creative problem-solving, and Hurson’s productive-thinking model.

Step 5. Refine the solution.

Once you have a potential solution, the next thing is to determine its viability. Pressure-test the solution to understand any weaknesses. Try to poke as many holes as possible in the idea, even kill it. For example, if your solution involves purchasing $500,000 in media, is your company likely to approve that spending? If you need the sales force to have upgraded marketing technology, would the company invest in it? If the idea continues to stand up to your pressure-testing,  then you know you’re on to something. 

When you think a solution is sound, provide the context of the problem and share the solution with your team members and the heads of groups that would be involved in implementing it, saying that this is one of the ideas you're thinking about. Don't expect them to immediately say, “Yes, that's a great solution”—which isn’t what you want anyway. You want them to ask questions and poke holes in the idea. Their feedback will be extremely valuable to you; it will indicate how workable the idea really is.

How you present the potential solution to others is important. Don't appear to be excited, or even enthusiastic. Instead, present the idea as if you’re unsure it will work. To get honest feedback, I say, “I think I may have a solution, but it doesn't feel right. Would you let me know what's wrong?” Phrasing it this way gives others permission to disagree with the idea. Creating a comfortable environment in which people don’t feel pressured to respond in any particular way is the key to refining the solution.

Step 6. Document and socialize the solution.

After the idea has been pressure-tested and refined, you must do one more thing before implementing it: make sure that others are on board with the idea. This requires documenting it—that is, putting the idea in writing, so that it can be referred to later in the content-marketing process. Then share the solution with the appropriate stakeholders and decision makers.

This is pretty basic stuff, but you would be surprised how many people just tell people about the solution without putting it in writing. When presenting it to leadership for approval, keep the problem overview and proposed solution basic. You should be able to describe it in a couple of sentences. 

When presenting it to people who will be involved in implementing the solution, provide more detail, including the data you used, the people you consulted or otherwise worked with, and the process you and your team used to arrive at the solution.

Getting buy-in requires working within your organization’s hierarchy by managing up (to leadership) and down (to the team you manage) as well as horizontally, to colleagues and other interested parties.

Step 7. Implement the solution.

Implementation can be tricky. Sometimes, it will be as easy as hiring a company, if you’re one of those marketers who has the luxury of hiring an agency to do the content-creation work for them. Even if you do have that luxury, it’s not always smooth sailing—you still need to oversee researching vendors, check references, get internal signoff, and do many other tasks. Other marketers are faced with having to add the work to their own—and others’—plates.

Beyond creating and implementing the solution, you also need to think about how easy it will be to roll it out both internally, at your company, and externally, with customers. Sometimes your solution will be well received and people will ask for it sooner. Other times, people are going to resist and slow things down because they don’t understand or appreciate the value of the solution.

Sometimes you may be the only person involved in a solution. Other times, it may take a year to roll something out. For example, I once worked on a brand rollout that took about eighteen months to implement. On the other hand, I also worked at a company where the brand rollout happened literally overnight. Both companies were very large; they just had different approaches to change.

Step 8. Measure the effectiveness of the solution.

Even though measuring the effectiveness of the content-marketing solution that’s been implemented is the last step, you should have been thinking about it from the beginning, when defining the solution. Be as clear and specific as possible about how success will be measured, so that you’re measuring what really matters. Don't just say that an increase in website traffic, for example, will be considered a success and a decrease in it won’t be. Instead, provide specific percentages.

After implementation, share the progress of the metrics with your team, your manager, and any other leader who should know about it. Tell them when the results will be in and deliver the information when it’s available. Once you’ve reviewed the metrics and perhaps received feedback from customers or observations from your team members, you will know whether the solution is working and whether the implemented idea should be refined further. This ongoing optimization can take a good solution and make it better, or an underperforming one and make it viable. 

One hopes that at this point the solution needs just a tweak or two. However, if the solution has not had the desired impact and you’re unable to refine it so that it does, have the courage to walk away from the solution. Then start all over again to solve the problem, beginning with step one.

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