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Point of view: Questions are the answer

Opinion, 26 May 2016

This guest blog is by Daniel Carlson, writing in the May issue of Admap. Subscribers can read the issue here.

Agencies don't win business when you think they do. We might burn candles at both ends preparing for pitches, but the pitch just clinches the deal. When we connect with prospects at a Q&A session – inspiring them to reflect on challenges in a new light – we invariably win the business later.

Initially, I'll admit, this seemed like a fluke. After all, the Q&A session? No part of a request for proposal is given shorter shrift. But I kept an eye on it. Turns out, this was a pattern I couldn't ignore. The opportunity for introspection – even for businesses – is a luxury. And brands value and need it.

Could questions become our competitive advantage? Actually, it seemed they already were. As VP of strategy, I only needed to harness them consciously, creating a culture of inquiry. It somewhat defies client expectation. Clients retain agencies with a sense that they'll get fast talkers with ready answers. Historically, agencies have created 'say' solutions – TV and print campaigns in which we say something that imprints onto culture. With that legacy, it stands to reason that we'd cede control to the smoothest talkers.

Today, however, clients need us to help them transform their businesses not only with communication but also with technology solutions. They're asking us to solve more complex problems, devising not just 'say' campaigns but 'build' and 'do' solutions. In 'build' campaigns, we help revolutionise products and services. 'Do' solutions rally people around brand causes and concepts, inviting consumers to be part of something bigger than buying. For this, there is no prefabricated answer. "New challenges have no history," says innovation guru and author Idris Mootee. "Given the speed of change today, extrapolating from the past could lead companies down a dangerous path."

Instead, I've learned we must extrapolate forward. We're diagnosticians, since the problem may not be what it seems. This requires that we stay in a state of inquiry for longer than we're used to. The difficult part: we're consultative experts with vast category and brand knowledge. Suddenly, we need to lean back and zip it? Yes. For a time. It's good for us – and better for our clients.

An answer to a problem we don't understand is no answer at all. When we use curiosity and questioning – and we listen between the lines – we shine a light on problems and solutions that might be buried under layers of false notions. "Questions are places in your mind where answers fit," says innovator and author Clayton Christensen. "If you haven't asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off."

That said, we've been stuck for too long on the same tired questions: What's your biggest business challenge? Who's your audience? What does success look like? It falls flat, given the new dimensions of problem solving.

Strategic processes should incorporate deeper lines of inquiry. Start with an 'Enquire' stage, and look back to understand the problem's root cause and what needs to transform: How did we get to this place? What happened leading up to this point? Why are we here? Why did we make the choices we made to get here? We want questions to start one step deeper than the 'what' and 'who'.

We also spend time on the 'obvious' – asking questions to which, in the past, we'd have had all the answers. Long-held truths, in the course of becoming 'obvious', often turn out to be just so many fictions. The truth is elsewhere. We enquire until we find it.

The second stage, 'Improvise', moves from the past to the present. We explore ways to make the transformation: What if we...? Who says we can't...? What would be the weirdest...? How might this brand disrupt itself? No one's right or wrong. We don't have the answer. We're open to big and small, weird and square – just as in an acting studio. We expand on ideas as actors do: we 'play'.

As I see it, 'Improvise' is the missing link for strategists. Currently, in crafting briefs, they take blindfolded leaps from the fact-finding side of the mountain to the strategic insights side – and it's a long way down. Since problems need to be solved in new and multiple ways, the gap is widening. This footbridge, 'Improvise', allows us to try on possibilities for size, moving forward on sure footing.

Finally, during the 'Imaginate' stage, our questions look to the future. Aware of the needed transformation, we determine the way forward: What will transform? How will it transform? The three stages shape a more expansive brief and broader solutions. It's one way we're embracing the power of questions. We need to cultivate the habit. It takes practice. Restraint. We have to turn down the volume on the clamorous need to be right long enough to see the problem clearly.

But the answers? They'll follow close behind, and they'll be the kind of breakthrough solutions we couldn't have imagined otherwise.

Daniel Carlson is group director of strategy for POSSIBLE Seattle, where he oversees all major accounts including Microsoft, IHG, Bacardi, AT&T and Coca-Cola. He is responsible for providing strategic leadership for campaigns, activations and technology solutions.

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