November 26, 2013
Leonardo da Vinci challenged convention with his thinking, as he demonstrated in his drawings of his flying machine. Similarly, we must be creative thinkers as we work to position our clients. (Courtesy Toronto Public Library)
At Marshall, we’re not designers, but we appreciate the creative problem solving approach that visual designers employ. When we are called upon to position a client, we must find a way to describe their complex organization in a single compelling thought, which requires similarly creative thinking.
This can be a daunting task, especially with the multifaceted clients we work with. For example, we have several higher education clients, such as UC Berkeley and Caltech, who are known for being leaders across a breadth of disciplines. When we work with them on positioning, our goal is to develop one defining thought that’s clear enough for the organization’s audiences to understand, but broad enough so they aren’t limited by it. We call this strategic ambiguity, but that doesn’t mean that this thought can be vague. It still has to be true, differentiating and meaningful.
Along the way we might get stuck as we work to distill this “big idea” from the many important facts we hear. When we get stuck, the key is to approach the problem from a different perspective—to be unconventional.
There are a few tips we can share that will help pull you out of your creativity slump, reframe your position and move ahead.
- Do your homework. Early on, we immerse ourselves in the client’s world as deeply as we can—interviewing people inside and outside of the organization, spending time in their environment and looking for as much insight as possible. Then, if we need to shift the direction, we have plenty of research to go back to.
- Listen for the truths. Identify multiple insights at the beginning of the process, instead of beginning the project with one narrow insight. It’s smarter to begin the creative process by thinking of all points of entry into an issue.
- Go big right out of the gate. Keep your thinking as high level as possible. Look for analogies in other businesses or industries. This will enable you to rise above the details and look for organizing principles.
- Make sure you’re solving the right problem. Sometimes we end up wrestling with issues—such as organizational or operational problems—that can’t always be solved through positioning or messaging. If you try to resolve the wrong problem, the solution will always be at odds with it.
Early on in our work with UC Berkeley, we saw them as a uniquely unconventional institution. But the idea of “challenging convention” was divisive, as for many it tied the school to the rebellious era of the ’60s and left-wing protests. We reframed our thinking and thought about Berkeley’s excellence across every discipline—a truly renaissance institution where breakthroughs often happen because disparate ideas collide daily. If Berkeley were a person, we thought, it would be someone like Leonardo da Vinci. We found Berkeley’s bigger promise in this renaissance spirit—reimagining the world, by challenging convention to shape the future.
Creative problem solving begins with being well informed, then taking a step back to free oneself of the details. When you let go for a minute, and look for the unconventional approach or reframe your path, new avenues will open.