Zooming out before diving in: What are you solving?

zooming out

If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Mark Twain or Abraham Maslow or some other smart deceased person.

How much of what you’ve done today was done without specifically knowing what you are trying to achieve and why? Probably a lot.

This is a good thing because if we would stop to think with every decision we make we wouldn’t make it past brushing our teeth before passing out from mental exhaustion. You need your automatic pilot to take care of most of your decisions.

But in business, sometimes it pays to stop and think about what you’re solving for. In fact, I think most projects you are working on right now can be helped by asking 3 simple questions:

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • How do we try to achieve it?
  • Why are we trying to achieve that?

My evolution as a (Digital Analytics) Consultant

For the past 10 years I’ve been professionally working in Digital Marketing. Most of it at the agency side as a consultant. Looking back at my development I notice 3 distinct stages that correlate to the questions posed above.

Stage 1: Trying to solve everything with your specialist knowledge

Google Analytics was my weapon of choice. I’ve been working with it for a long time and I’m familiar with all the little aspects of it. It’s definitely a powerful tool, but obviously it can’t solve everything.

However, at the beginning of my career I always defaulted to reasoning from inside my favourite tools and their features to figure out how to solve the problem at hand.

While this is great for becoming a better specialist, it’s unlikely that you’ll have a high success rate with your clients.

Stage 2: Learning about different specialisms and tools to solve more problems

Once you start to notice the low success rate (and perhaps get a bit saturated in your specialist knowledge), your next step is to learn about adjacent tools and specialisms. Ones that can be used to solve similar questions in different ways.

If you’re an analyst at a digital marketing agency, you’ll likely learn something about the traffic flowing in (advertising and organic) and about how to optimize websites (UX/UI and Conversion Rate Optimization).

By broadening your skill set and the tools you are familiar with, the likelihood of you starting a project with the right approach increases and the chances of success go up.

When I did this, however, I still found there to be to few success cases. Don’t get me wrong, clients were happy, but if you’d ask me “what impact did you have with your work on the bottom line” I was usually skeptical of my own results.

Stage 3: Asking “Why?” to make sure you’re solving the right problem

I started to ask “Why?” more often. Instead of assuming somebody had thought through why they needed to hire me, I assumed they knew nothing and simply asked “Why do you need me to do X?”. In my experience there are 3 typical reactions to asking “Why”:

  • I don’t know
  • I don’t want to tell you (often an ego-masked “I don’t know”)
  • Because a, b & c

I found out that most companies soliciting our specialist digital marketing services had budgets available and had some vague idea of what they wanted us to do. However, they were unable to specify the goals they hoped to achieve with it.

When poking a bit further (“So why do you want this elaborate Google Analytics implementation exactly? What do you hope it will do for you?”) I often ended up at vague reasons that I previously read in analytics-vendor sponsored blog posts around the web. “Data is the new oil” kind of nonsense.

I finally figured it out: The chances of me providing value as a consultant are close to 0% if my client can’t articulate what success looks like.

In order to truly add value, you need to understand why you are doing something. Often you’ll end up rephrasing the entire project scope once you truly understand what a company is trying to achieve and why.

Understanding the Business

For the last 3 years, most of my focus has been on understanding companies business models. If you’re not sure how the business(unit) works and why it exists you’re turning your work into a guessing game.

Usually, you are working on one little cogwheel inside this big machine full of turning cogwheels. If you don’t know the direction the other cogwheels are turning you’re in trouble. This analogy is one-dimensional but there are obviously multiple dimensions to each business problem.

Understanding the Organization

Until skynet takes over and eliminates us all, businesses are run by humans. And after 10 years I’m pretty sure that the limitations of business success are rarely technical in nature. They are usually about personal ego’s and fear or the way a group of people is (dis)organized to reach a goal.

When you start asking “Why”, you’ll likely run into both problems.

Most of the times you figure out that:

  1. The person you’re dealing with does not know why. It is not uncommon for mid-level managers to simply operate with performance targets without understanding the overall goal.
  2. The thing you was asked to do is unlikely to have impact. Once you know the overall goal, you as the specialist might realize that the thing you were asked to do is unlikely to impact that goal.
  3. The organization is actually working against the goal. Often organization change is needed to reach a goal. It’s not just about implementing a tool. This “People” change is most important.

Zooming out before zooming in

Although it sounds really logical, it’s often skipped. I think there is a propensity to “get busy” and a fear to “waste money” on having discussions about direction and strategy before diving into tactics and action.

Don’t get me wrong, without action there will be no value and there is definitely a waste of resources going on by over-analyzing decisions at most companies. But spending some time on “Why” you want “What” to happen before diving into “How” you’re solving it usually pays out over time.

So next time you’re jumping into a project with your favorite tool, ask the following question and see if the response makes sense:

If I successfully help you do this, how will we make use of it to achieve our goals?

You might find out that you’re trying to hammer lightbulbs into sockets to make the hot water run again.

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