22nd November

Eyes on the prize

Using your goals to find effective solutions

When we walk into a meeting, there’s a natural tendency for all attendees to immediately start firing off solutions for all the problems a company faces; “Increase marketing spend by 75% next quarter”, “shift funding to greater support our R&D department”, “change the messaging used in our campaign”, anything to get to where we want to be.

There’s a fundamental problem with this approach – everyone assumes that the problems they’re proposing solutions for are actually the problems that the company is facing. This isn’t always the case. The underlying problem might be something no one in the room is seeing, and a framework that helps participants identify this is needed.

There’s also a secondary issue here – when someone commits to spend their valuable time in a 2 hour meeting, they naturally try to solve as many problems as possible. This can lead to chaotic outcomes at the end where so much has been said and yet very little of value is concluded.

Set up your goals

The goal

The solution is a framework that not only allows people to identify the real problems they should be considering, but also to help everyone narrow their focus down to a single problem per session in order to have clear and actionable suggestions at the end; a solution that allows people to use organisational goals as their starting point.

Of course, it’s important at this point to make sure that you’re actually proposing a goal without inserting incognito problems in there. To clarify, “Increase revenue by 10%” is a good goal; it communicates an endpoint your organisation needs to reach while being sufficiently wide to accommodate discussion around it. “Reduce time wasted by employees in order to increase revenue by 10%” is a bad goal. Not only is there a sneaky reference to a problem in there (Your growth is being stifled by lazy employees), but this will automatically narrow down the scope of the discussion to the subject of employee productivity. To clarify, employee productivity may turn out to be the primary problem that needs to be tackled, but it might also turn out to be a “false negative” – a problem that doesn’t actually exist or is just covering up deeper issues that are rooted in the organisation.

colleting the problems

Collecting the problems

The first thing to consider whenever running a think tank session is the number of participants. We find that when running a two hour ideation workshop, anything over 3 participants (excluding the moderator) will result in the session either running too long or not yielding the insight you might need – too many opinions you might call it, and too many chances for a moderator to lose control of the room (especially if they’re inexperienced). 

The first step is to hand everyone a piece of A5 sized paper and get them to write down 3 things standing in the way of the organisational goal you want to reach. It’s especially important that there’s no discussion at all going on at this stage in order to avoid different participants influencing each other – this might very well result in an important problem getting stifled or drowned out.

drilling down

Drilling down

It’s now time to identify the real issues. Collect every piece of paper around the table and start going through each problem suggest by the participants. It’s essential at this stage that you continuously ask people to clarify what they mean in order to try and coax out more information. Naturally as this is happening, discussion will ensue that on occasion will uncover deeper issues will take the place of the problems that are initially suggested.

Timing is also an important issue at this stage. Someone needs to pay attention to the duration of each stage of the discussion and ensure that the whole exercise is restricted to around 45 minutes. More than this, and there’s a real chance you won’t get enough time on the following exercise to come up with actual actionable suggestions.

Once the discussion is wrapped up, it’s time for everyone to agree on a single problem to pursue for the rest of the session. There’s always going to be people who ask to try and tackle more than one problem, but it’s here that moderators need to stick to their guns. Of course, prioritisation can be done using a simple time vs effect framework. Each problem is evaluated through the predicted amount of time needed to fix it against the overall effect on the organisation. The lower the time and larger the effect, the higher the prioritisation.

structuring final steps

Structuring the final step

This part of the session is all about drilling deep into the chosen problem and analysing the journey of all relevant parties. There are two primary frameworks suggested by the Norman Nielsen group that are important to keep in mind here.

The first is the empathy mapping framework which allows all participants to take a methodical approach in identifying how customers feel about a particular product (or aspect of a product). Simply put, a discussion needs to be had about what customers might say and do during different steps of their journey, as well as what any hidden feelings that aren’t externalised might be; what they think and feel.

For this to work, the customer’s journey needs to be drawn out at a high level. The customer journey mapping framework described by the NN group can be used to help put this section together – keeping the scenario and goals for a particular user in mind, their journey when interacting with a business is broken down into core components which are compatible with the empathy mapping exercise mentioned previously.

empathy map

This might all seem a bit too conceptual at the moment, so let’s look at someone looking to purchase a new computer. Their journey can be split into 4 parts which can be applied to any purchasing journey: First, they’ll define what they need to buy in terms of their needs; Do they need a new monitor or can they keep their old one? How powerful does the computer really have to be? Does their work situation require a specific platform?

Secondly, they’ll compare the different options available through any means available – what prices do the different stores offer? Is it worth paying a bit more to buy local? Which of these two equally priced GPUs perform better?

A third optional step is negotiating. Once the potential customer has their sights on an option, they might want to deal with the merchant directly to get a better price. Of course, this is not always possible, especially on online channels, however this is also a factor that could tie in to the comparison stage of the purchasing journey.

Finally comes the selection and purchasing step. This is the culmination of all the commitment and good will built up in the previous steps, and is where you really want to make sure there are no conversion blockers around.

The way forward

Customer journey and empathy maps can be combined in order to carry out a detailed analysis of the way people interact with an organisation, and vice versa. The whole exercise can be mapped out visually by putting the customer journey on the horizontal axis, and the empathy mapping elements vertically (diagram shown below). In this way, a short empathy mapping exercise can be carried out at every step of any specified customer journey. It’s once again imperative that the workshop moderator controls the room and keeps the discussion orderly to make sure enough insight can be mined from the remaining hour of the session.

At this stage you hopefully have a nugget of insight which will allow you to move the needle forward and solve one of the problems that stands in the way of you company and its goals. The keyword here is one. We’ve said it once already, but it bears repeating – a think tank session is not there to solve all your problems in one go. You’ll need to build a culture that shies away from disordered meeting and embraces focus and longer term planning in order to steadily move towards an endpoint; think tank sessions need to happen on a regular basis and tackle a different problem each time. 

This approach may encounter some resistance by some. Different departments assign priority to different problems, and want their own to be solved before everyone else’s. But the long term gains will be much greater when everyone is on board with this new way of working and thinking.

Luke Vella



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