Don't solve the problem you are asked to solve

As designers, consultants or creatives our clients come to use to solve specific problems. For designers it's that typical call: "We need a logo". Or the new one that is more trendy: "We want to build an app".
Paradoxically our job as problem solvers is not to solve the problem people ask us to solve. But why? Let's discover the two phases in which most of the problems fall.

It's the wrong problem

Phase one: reframing

"One of my rules in consulting is simple: never solve the problem I am asked to solve. [...] Because, invariably, the problem I am asked to solve is not the real, fundamental, root problem." — Don Norman in The Design of Everyday Things

As Norman explains it, the problems are different than how they look. The problematic can be much more complex, and in some case even much simpler. In this scenario, your role as a consultant is to reframe the problematic. There are plenty methods to help you do that. I have covered one of these methods in my article "Before and after the artifact". 
Another way to reframe problems is to check on what level the problematic is. We can see for each problematic the three levels following levels. Each problem may be in one or more of these levels.

  1. Matter or artifact. The problem here is the tangible aspect. The concept and strategy behind it could work well. But the final form seems not linked with the levels above it.
  2. Gray matter or concept. Here the artifact may work. But you don't have the right intellectual story or concept to explain and share it. The strategy to set the different artifacts together could work well too. But you just miss the way to make it clear to a wider audience.
  3. Dark matter or strategy. Here the basis elements could all be correct. You have the right artifact, form or object, and you have a good story to tell it. But what's problematic here is the connexion of the artifact with other elements. It's the system that is problematic.

They have to solve it  

Phase two: involving the team

When problems are well formed or the reframing done then, you could simply act. You could do the research, the prototypes and provide the solution. That's great for you as a consultant, because you solve the problem quickly. This attitude is problematic for one reason. You give the solution without integrating the people who saw the problem. So, your client is in a situation where he always need you. And this for any little variations of the same problematic. This situation is maybe good in the short term. But in the long term, it creates "lazy customers". 

And even worse, "bad" to "no" implementation of your solutions. An "okay" live solution is better than a revolutionary idea in a report.

Do you want to work for the long term and see your solution come to live? Then, you definitely should help people solve the problem by themselves. And you shouldn't solve it for them. In a way, this is like what happens between a psychologist and his patient. The psychologist doesn't give the solution to the patients, and that's it. If he did so, his patient couldn't do the whole healing process. The good consultant is like the psychologist. He is a wise guide more than a standard problem solver.

As we have seen, consultants do not solve the problems people ask them to solve. When needed they reframe the problems to discover their roots. And then they do not solve it alone but help their clients to solve it with the appropriate help.

Note on budget and time

The smallest thing to do

The position we saw before is what happens when your get enough time and budget. In fact, reframing problems and involving everyone takes time. So when there is not much time or budget, it's hard to solve the real problem. Still, the smallest element to do for every project is at least to reframe the problem. Solving the wrong problem is just a more creative way to throw money out the window. You may leave the part where you involve the client in the solution for budget reasons. But then it should be clear that there is extra work on the client side to make the solution a reality.