What problem are you solving?

Joshua Bell is a famous violin player. He fills out the concert halls, and people pay hundreds of dollars to hear him play on his Stradivarius violin.

In 2007, Washington Post did a social experiment. It asked Mr. Bell to play at the Metro subways station in Washington, D.C. The Post wondered how people will respond to hearing a renown musician playing in a different context. Among about a thousand people who passed by Bell that day, only seven stopped to listen, despite Bell playing the exactly same music he plays on stage. For his 45 minute performance of six Bach pieces, Bell earned $32 in tips, including a $20 tip from someone who recognized him.

Outside his normal context, despite the beauty of his music, listeners barely noticed Bell’s existence. In the new frame of a busy subway station, passers-by didn’t see Bell as a renowned musician. They saw him just as another hard-hit chap wanting to earn a buck.

Now, if we don’t have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world play one of the best pieces of music ever written, how many other things are we missing just by framing them wrongly?

Humans create frames for what we see, hear and experience. Those frames both inform and limit the way we think.

To fully understand and adopt the potential of something new, like digital strategy or experience design, we first need to change our perspective on how we solve problems. How much do we miss by framing the clients’ problems we encounter in one specific way?

If I asked you to build a bridge for me, you’d go off and build a bridge. Or, you can ask me why do I need a bridge. I’d tell you then that I need it to get to the other side of a river. This response opens up the frame of possible solutions. There are clearly many ways to get across a river besides building a bridge. We can make a tunnel, or install a ferry service, get catapulted over or, fly in a balloon.

The problem with advertising agencies is that they are building bridges in the response to clients asking them to cross the river.

We define the business we are in as advertising. This automatically limits the frames we use for problem-solving. The frames boil down to a brand or communications challenge. We ask how to make our communications more creative or how to make a bigger media buy or how to become (even) more friendly with the client.

We don’t ask is why is this a problem and what can we do to solve it?

The first reason we need to start asking this question is that today we operate in a much more competitive environment. Companies that don’t constantly reframe the business they are risking to become obsolete.

Just look at Kodak. Kodak defined its business as making cameras and film. When digital cameras made film photography obsolete, the company stumbled, because it wasn’t able to open up its frame early enough to see its business as including this new technology.

Then look at Uber. This controversial startup defines its business as software infrastructure for shipping and logistics. Traditionally, one can say that Uber is a taxi company (if so, it would be the most valuable taxi company without vehicles). But Uber is also a delivery company, a convenience store, and a software company. It describes itself, as a global urban infrastructure. By avoiding the traditional definition of the business it is in, Uber allows itself to compete in many more markets than it would have competed as a mere taxi company. It competes with FEDEX, with convenience stores, concierge, nanny services and with urban transportation options.

The second reason we need to start asking the why question is that the range of solutions that advertising offers is not competitive anymore. Advertising has a bad habit of starting off a project with a solution, instead of a problem. If the request is “increase revenue by X,” we usually don’t ask “why” as a catalyst for exploring deeper ideas. Instead, we open our toolbox and take awareness or customer acquisition or repeat purchase out. But the question of “why” can lead us to realize that our client may be selling an obsolete product or it may lead us to wonder why our younger audience is more attracted to our competitors’ products.

A good example of putting a problem first is Tesco. It set a goal to increase marker share substantially and it needed to find a creative way of doing do. Now, Tesco could have offered discounts or made a TV spot or did a promotion via direct marketing.

Instead, Tesco looked at their customers and realized how busy their lives were. To increase its market share, the company accepted that it needs to be where its customers are. Instead of spending millions of dollars in advertising to drive customers to them, Tesco entirely reframed the customer shopping experience. In the now famous move, the food chain took photos of food isles and put life-sized images in the subway stations to be scanned by commuters. The sales followed.

Don’t limit yourself by knowing what you want to do up front. By approaching the problem with a fixed solution in mind, all you can do is look for evidence that supports it. Instead, you need to know what problem you want to solve. When you focus on the problem, it frees you to constantly improve your solution.