Why Not Just Ask? (Getting Past Solutions)

Those of us in the creative design and development community really picked up on the word “solutions” several years ago. As in “Oh no, we don’t design websites...we create solutions.” This statement usually accompanies a homepage headline like, “We are [brand name]!” And it’s not just the tech world. I noticed that LP, the building materials company, just switched its name from LP Building Products to LP Building Solutions. Here’s hoping General Mills doesn’t change it’s tag to “Breakfast Solutions.”

All clients have problems that need solving, to be sure. Though, most of what I do as a strategist doesn’t involve giving advice or “solutions” for a digital product. I really just ask questions…lots of questions. Sometimes I ask the same question over and over again in slightly different ways until I’m satisfied with the answer.

It’s OK to be a bit annoying

I had this past client whose product was a complicated subscription-based software platform. They were rebuilding it from the ground up with eyes on a relaunch. No small amount of work; every feature we kept from the old version was money to be spent with the new version. It was time to get mercenary and I kept circling back to this one particular feature again and again. It allowed for highly customized publishing and formatting by users on the platform. Eventually, after asking about this feature in different ways about two dozen times I finally learned that out of tens of thousands of account holders only a couple dozen had ever used the feature and only a handful of those used it more than once. But, those account holders were some very squeaky wheels.

I think my final version of the question was something like,

“So, to be clear, you’re comfortable spending thousands of dollars so six users can keep these features and not abandon the platform, even though they were early beta users offered free accounts?”

Admittedly, there wasn’t much wiggle room in that version. But, he knew answering “yes” wasn’t the way to go. He realized it was a financial loss-maker and had no business being included in the re-development of the software platform. It was scrapped to the relief of the engineering team. Later he admitted that the money it saved him was well in excess of my portion of the project fee. Then it was my turn to be relieved.

There are no solutions without questions

Good questions can offer the benefit of making you and your team appear smart without having the burden of coming up with the answers all on your own. Also, a client that originates an answer to a smart question is much more likely to follow (their own) advice. If my past client had answered “yes” to that question I asked he would have to do so knowing his stubbornness was overruling his good judgement.

The Five Whys

SIx Sigma practitioners have adopted an approach often called "The Five Whys.” It was originally created by Sakichi Toyoda. He was a Japanese industrialist who eventually founded the Toyota car company. He developed The Five Whys in the 1930s and continued to employ it with Toyota manufacturing. It’s pretty much was you think it is. Take a problem and ask “why” until you get to the root cause. The general rule was just about five times to do the trick. Could be less, or it could be more. But, the real goal is to keep digging until you find the obstacle, the true motivation, the practice taken for granted, or the new method that seemed too risky to try.

So next time you’re stuck with how to offer a solution to a client, just keep asking more questions. Move past it feeling awkward, move past your client’s annoyance, shake off the need to show how smart you are by offering “solutions.” Just push to the root of the issue and you’re likely to reveal some true insight.

And, if you’re not comfortable with that...why?