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When Problems Become Problematic

Andrew Kinnear

Solving a rubix cube

The year is 2010. We’re in the halls of CES, Las Vegas. The star of this year’s show is the latest and greatest in customer tech: 3D TV. Crowds flock like moths to the flame, excited by 3D game and movie demos. TV manufacturers are throwing expensive immersive headsets to every passerby. Literally, millions of dollars have been spent in R&D by these companies, each vying to win the race to market with the at-home-3D experience they’ve decided all consumers will want.

When the winner emerges and the first 3D television hits the stores at a shocking take-home price of approximately $2,499, the manufacturers are stunned when consumers ignore it.

While Sony and Samsung had been spending on extravagant immersive tech, consumers had actually been downsizing their viewing habits. Quite literally, as manufacturers went big, consumers were going small, shifting their viewing habits and dollars to personal screens they could fit in their hands. When they did spend on home entertainment systems they gravitated to tech with a more universal appeal: HDR and 4K.

This is a picture-perfect case of a solution looking for a problem…and getting it wrong.

We see this play out all the time in public relations and communications.

Time, or the lack of it, is one of the most common challenges for leaders responsible for managing, building and protecting brands and organizations. In this era of urgency, most of us feel like firefighters, always responding to a crisis, prioritizing the most pressing over the important.

And it’s no wonder. We need to make more critical decisions, at a faster pace, with less resources and budget than ever before. In our race against the clock, time to reflect, to research, to ask the right questions is what we lose. The result is that limited time, resources and budget are often spent trying to solve the WRONG problem.

But, what if we understood that risk and failure were avoidable, and solving the right problem could lead to greater reward? When time is limited, the best way to spend it can be in identifying the right problem.

“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” Albert Einstein.

At Proof, we put a lot of energy and time into exploring problems. Our strategic planning process focuses more on problem-finding than on problem-solving.

Getting to the Right Problem

The problems we try to solve are human problems; not a communication or a product problem. As Public Relations and Communication professionals, we represent the interests of our end audiences with empathy and understanding in order to build trust in our brands and organizations.

Going Back to Research

Getting to the right problem is most often a research exercise. Yes, doing good research represents an extra cost but the value is relative to the impact of not knowing or guessing at the answer.

1:1 interviews with your target audience can be done quickly, and cost-effectively, to help validate assumptions, pull out essential insights and better understand your audience’s thoughts, feelings and motivations. The task of conducting empathy-generating interviews can be shared between a few people (taking 2 – 3 interviews each) which can accelerate the time to complete. When validating direction, interviews need only be 15 – 30 minutes long, with a mix of participants from general audience to extremes or very specific. Depending on the level of uncertainty, focus groups or an ethnographic study can also be used to bring greater confidence or allow deeper exploration.

A well-structured survey can provide quantitative evidence to validate or disprove the problem statement. In some cases, a quick $1,000 Google gen pop survey can save you from making a million-dollar mistake.

5 Whys

If you’re not certain whether more research is required, stress test your problem statement by looking at the challenge from a few different perspectives.

5 Whys is a now-famous interrogative technique, developed by Sakichi Toyoda of Toyota Motor Corporation. It prompts you to act like an inquisitive child, relentlessly in pursuit of a deeper answer. You keep asking ‘why’ until you hit upon a meaningful, actionable insight. Here’s how it might play out:

Our goal is to be known as the most innovative soda pop company,


Kids love technology and we need to appeal to kids


Our customer base has been getting older and market share has been shrinking


Kids see our pop as the kind of thing grandpa drinks and won’t touch it…


Revised Goal: redefine the brand as a youth-oriented product to acquire a stronger market share.

Reframe the Problem

Another way to get to the right problem is to reframe the problem you’re currently working with. Reframing how we understand information can lead to new solutions. “Framestorming” sessions can help a team better communicate the problem statement to ideate against. Here are a few examples of how “reframing a statement” comes to life:

Example 1: Planning a Corporate Milestone

Problem: What are we going to do at our company event?

Reframed problem: How can we make this day memorable for our employees?

The reframed problem statement doesn’t assume the need to have an event. It opens the inquiry to explore new and interesting definitions of what “memorable” can mean.

Example 2: Elevator Wait Times

Problem: The elevator is too slow

Solution: Make the elevator faster

Reframed problem: The wait is annoying

New solution: Make the wait feel shorter

In this example, from HBR, the reframed problem statement can save the property owner a significant amount of time, money and effort.

Reframing has the potential to unlock new opportunities and value for brands and organizations to deliver to audiences.

Communicating the Right Problem

Throughout the research process, and reframing, you may identify several problems that feel worth your attention. It’s important to prioritize by asking:

This is where crafting the problem statement can help to inspire ideas and solutions. How effectively a problem is communicated is as important as the insight it defines.

Make it Actionable

One of the common mistakes we make when communicating problems, is focusing on the symptom as opposed to the root cause.

Rather than stating “awareness is low,” you should define why or what is causing low awareness. Is it because we’re talking to a new audience? Is the audience difficult to reach? Is the audience aware of the brand but not aware of the value it can deliver to them?

Make it Inspiring

Designers and business strategists are famous for posing questions that begin with “How might we…” A question that starts like this invites our natural creativity. Once we’re certain we have the right problem at hand, an HMW (how might we) exercise can be a good tool for generating open, intuitive and innovative solutions.

Make it Human

Again, the problems we try to solve are human problems. When crafting a problem statement, use natural, human language that people can understand and identify with. Avoid marketing and corporate jargon. As tempting as it can be to use words like disrupt, leapfrog, amplify or operationalize, they only muddy your real meaning. Using real language helps keep you focused on the end audience’s perspective and helps teams connect to the problem and brainstorm solutions.

When we rebranded to Proof a few years ago, we had a lot of conversations with clients and people we work with in the industry to understand how we were perceived as an agency. What emerged from those interviews was that we have a lot to be thankful for, and a few things to work on, but an interesting observation we heard over and over was: your team asks a lot of good questions.

It’s true. We hire people that value curiosity, have an insatiable appetite for learning and are interested in new experiences. As a result, our clients identify us as engaged, interested in truly understanding their business and being in a position to offer better counsel because of it.

While we have access to the same information and opportunities as every other organization, our focus on Asking Better Questions (ABQ) gives us a competitive advantage. Better questions lead to better answers, better solutions and, therefore, better outcomes for our clients. ABQ is now a large part of Proof’s DNA and prompts us to challenge our assumptions, dig a little deeper and understand problems better.

As Charles Kettering, the famed inventor and head of research for GM, said: “a problem well-stated is half-solved.”

Interestingly, Dimenco launched glasses-free 3D at CES in 2019.

Was this the problem all along?