The Careful Art of Problem Solving

The Careful Art of Problem Solving

The ability to solve problems quickly is now crucial to the successful running of any business. There are more obstacles to be overcome and more testing situations to navigate than ever before. The Internet Age has brought forth so many new opportunities, but it has also introduced layers of constantly shifting complexity that present previously unseen difficulties.

But, even more important than solving problems quickly is making sure they are solved well. This starts by being able to recognize the difference between real problems and everyday challenges.

Challenges are the usual difficulties a business faces. These are the tough yards that have to be covered as part of running a commercial enterprise. It requires skill and application and, although there are no guarantees that things will always work out perfectly, there is a clear sense of the nature of the difficulty and what the desired outcome looks like.

Tackling challenges is where hard work comes in and core competencies are leveraged. The challenges that a business face often define what the business is, and its ability to meet those challenges better than the rest of the field is what on the surface constitutes much of its value and viability.

Challenges are part of the life of the business, and are there to be met and grappled with. The business anticipates challenges and equips itself with tools, processes and expertise so that it can regularly deliver solutions to them.

Problems are another kind of difficulty altogether. They differ from challenges in their degree of familiarity. They are the irregular difficulties that nobody sees coming, for which no templates exist, and which sometimes involve new factors that even defy clear description.

No matter how daunting the prospect, there is rarely much question about what needs to happen to address a challenge. With a problem, it’s often less clear even where to begin let alone where to go.

Problems are rarely binary. There is no straightforward way to make them just go away. They aren’t amenable to the same tools, processes and expertise used to deal with the standard challenges of the business. They are different, and treating them as if they are the same can often make the situation worse.

There is a predictability about challenges that means repeatable ways of dealing with them can be developed. Problems, by their comparatively unprecedented nature, are more elusive. They require experience rather than expertise, lateral thinking rather than focused analysis, and imagination and guile rather than application of process.

This is where the unreasonable power of creativity comes in. Creativity isn’t just about artifacts, it’s a way of thinking. It’s more of an approach than a process. It’s about finding a new way of framing things, asking better questions, and harnessing fresher perspectives.

It involves a different kind of difficult that can be scarier than anything involved with dealing with normal challenges. The answer doesn’t always lie in the conventional data. It is more about a leap than an extrapolation.

Creativity can’t be forced through conscious effort, but comes together through careful observation, mental sifting, and the percolation of ideas. The drive for ‘right first time’ only results in ‘wrong every time’ when it comes to addressing problems.

It goes beyond approach to expectation. Some problems aren’t even there to be solved. Some of them never end. Sometimes it is more important to understand them and to let them iterate. Challenges are there to be overcome, but problems need to be accommodated.

Challenges can be demanding, but the ability to cope with them is really just commercial table stakes. True competitive advantage lies not in the ability of the business to deal with its regular difficulties, but in how well it can manage its exceptional ones.

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Kevin MayKevin May, founding partner of Sticks, is a veteran of the UK and US advertising industries. Sticks – with offices in Seattle (USA) and Oxford (UK) – was founded to provide a more flexible and circumspect strategic resource for businesses needing to deal with the sort of unprecedented situations arising from the more fluid and unpredictable environment of the digital age.

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Kevin May

Kevin May, founding partner of Sticks, is a veteran of the UK and US advertising industries. A graduate of Oxford University, the first 20 years of his career were spent in London, at agencies such as J Walter Thompson, TBWA, CDP, AMVBBDO and Y&R, as well as time working as a journalist and independent strategist. He came to the USA at the end of 2005 to head up the planning department at Publicis in Seattle, before leaving to start Sticks in 2009. He has provided the strategic smarts behind numerous campaigns that have won awards for both creativity and effectiveness in market, including Nestle (confectionary and ice cream), RAF (recruitment), Telegraph (newspapers), Gallaher (tobacco), Virgin (financial services), Canon (cameras), T-Mobile (cellular), and Washington’s Lottery (lottery). Sticks – with offices in Seattle (USA) and Oxford (UK) – was founded to provide a more flexible and circumspect strategic resource for businesses needing to deal with the sort of unprecedented situations arising from the more fluid and unpredictable environment of the digital age. It comprises a global community of over 400 ideas professionals from the worlds of agency strategy, management consultancy, market research, digital specialization, client marketing, and entrepreneurialism, as well as from more diverse fields such as law, industrial design, teaching, architecture, neurology, and non-profit fundraising. The central promise is a fresh and independent perspective on any issue that requires some distanced objectivity rather than just the specific knowledge of subject-matter expertise. Sticks works across all silos of the business, including marketing, operations, human resources, finance, information technology, security, and distribution. Its projects have ranged from thorny brand strategy problems, to helping a restaurant business figure out why fights were breaking out regularly between wait staff and customers at a small percentage of their locations, to “big tent” issues for major corporations such as optimizing collaboration in a highly matrixed global organization, building a framework for making decisions about of the office of the future, and identifying the key facets of gender balance in the modern workforce. It organizes itself like an agency creative department, and its output is actionable, simple and expressed in plain English. Clients include major corporations such as Microsoft, T-Mobile, Virgin, Hasbro, Starbucks, Expedia, Allstate Insurance, and Moet Hennessy, through to more local companies/start-ups such as PEMCO, Front Desk, Essentia Water, Lagunitas, HomeAway, LearnBIG, Feuji, and Group Health. It has also worked successfully with numerous agencies, like BBDO, Publicis, DNA, Cole & Weber, Razorfish, Inferno London, and Wexley School for Girls. More details and client recommendations are available upon request, or at




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