The problem presented is almost never the problem.

Though it’s quick and easy to be an order-taker and take problems at face value, to get to the true business problem we must define the problem using powerful questioning.

For marketers and researchers, defining the problem starts with scoping, a process for learning as much as possible about the business challenges, hypotheses, and motivations, and which often includes multiple conversations, multiple stakeholders, and multiple points of view. Executed well, scoping leads to a clear definition of the problem, and helps us understand the key decisions to be made. It also helps us gather the information and requirements to determine the next steps. Only once you have defined the problem can you begin to think about how you will solve it.

There are 4 steps to successful scoping, and powerful questioning plays a crucial and unique role in each.

Step 1 | Understand the request

Understanding the request is all about context. It requires getting to the motivations and history behind the request to gather clues as to what the problem really is.

Powerful questions that will help you understand the request include:

  • What led to the request?
  • Who initiated the request?
  • Who will use this information?
  • What is the problem you are trying to solve?
  • What key decision does it address?
  • What will you do with the results?
  • What’s driving the timeline?

Is this boardroom research intended to drive a decision with a senior leadership team? Is it exploratory research intended to set the foundation for development of a new product line? Is it research that will help convince franchisees to make an investment in a certain part of the business?

It’s critical to understand who the end decision-makers are and what decision they are trying to make.

Step 2 | Clarify the business issue

Clarifying the business issue is about uncovering the business decision to be made and understanding the implications it might have on the business. If you buy that the first problem is almost never the actual problem, then the initial request is almost never the solution. You need to take a step back to ensure you don’t miss the real problem.

Powerful questions to clarify the business issue include:

  • Based on what we know today, what do we believe is the right decision?
  • What is the risk to the business if nothing changed?
  • What could happen if we made the wrong decision?
  • What does success look like?
  • What is the speech you’d like to give?
  • What do we already know about the market, the consumer, the product?
  • What type of decision is this? Are we identifying, generating, assessing, or confirming?

Step 3 | Identify hypotheses and information gaps

Start with what you know, what you don’t know, and what you think. By getting existing information and opinions on the table, you can identify where you need more information. Research executed against a specific set of hypotheses is always more efficient. This is because you can go deeper in one area rather than trying to cover small pieces of everything with a landscape study. Further, identifying hypotheses and information gaps ensures that the plan builds on existing insights or thinking.

Once you think you know the problem, try to sharpen it by laying out some key pieces of information. Understand what you know, what you don’t know, and what you think. Set the stage for what information needs to be considered and identify where there is a lack of alignment among team members. Take care to understand the difference between fact, interpretation, and opinion – and call yourself out on what are the real facts vs. your own opinions.

Powerful questions for identifying hypotheses and information gaps include:

  • What are your hypotheses about this issue?
  • Who do we need to win with?
  • How might we win with this consumer target?
  • What do we want the target consumer to think, feel, and do?
  • How will we know we/this idea has succeeded?
  • What separates a winning idea from a losing idea?
  • What results would you need to see to go forward with this?
  • Can we solve this issue with what we already know?
  • What would you do if we did not do research?

Step 4 | Articulate the problem in a powerful way

Think of this as the elevator pitch for the problem you’re solving. You might not share this with anyone but when you’re caught under pressure, it will help you to articulate the problem you’re trying to solve in a powerful way. When you can speak confidently about the problem at hand, having tested it against hypotheses and facts and information gaps, that will inspire others to believe in your problem too.

Start by writing down what you think the problem is and then pressure testing it with a few things:

  • What are the clear business facts that support this problem?
  • What are the agreed upon action standards to avoid a debate on how to interpret results when data comes in?
  • Were you an order-taker or a problem solver?

Throughout the four-step process, ensure all key stakeholders work together or at least review and align with the research request before it’s executed. Not only will this allow you to get a firsthand view of the team dynamics prior to research, it will allow all stakeholders to voice their hypotheses, needs, and biases, and align on the end in mind. It also gives you a chance to address any conflicting agendas.

Defining the problem is the most important part of tackling a business challenge. Make sure you give it the attention it requires.

Ready to learn more? See how we used our Research Decision Wheel to help Sport Chek identify insight needs and come up with a winning strategy. Or, learn how we helped our CPG client clearly define customer decision journeys to optimize their in-store communication materials and present retailers with a compelling strategy to increase sales of their product.