As I wrote yesterday, understanding and articulating the problem (“a less than ideal state”) is a crucial step in creative thinking.
Once you have the problem written in a way you and your brainstorm sponsor agree, the next step is to brainstorm ideas which either remove or control the problem.
One of my favorite exercises helps do exactly that – and it, has a great name to boot: Stop It or Mop It.
Originally created and defined by Dr. Robert Harris, a retired professor of English at the University of California at Riverside, Stop It or Mop It is based on the two primary ways to address problems, either by focusing on its Cause, or by focusing on its Effect.
Cause addresses head-on the source of the problem, including the reasons for the cause.
Effect addresses the result or consequence of the problem as well as its symptoms.
Harris writes there are three ways to address the Cause: Prevent It, Eliminate It or Reduce it.
Prevent It – Understandably, this is not always a realistic strategy. Typical brainstorms are forward thinking. Prevent It is retro thinking: it’s an approach where people must predict the problem before it occurs. However, I have had some luck in brainstorms with a variation to make it proactive. “How can we prevent this from happening a second time?”
That said, this approach is perfect for issues and crises management, which is nothing more than a brainstorm of worst case scenarios. (This is also one of the few times you’ll want to invite the most negative people you know to the issues/crises brainstorm.) As PR people know better than any other management position, it’s always less costly to fix a problem before it starts. (“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Grandma Eklund.)
One other thought: this is a good approach to research best practices. What have other companies done to address a similar or parallel problem?
Eliminate It – Of the six approaches, Eliminate It is perhaps most ideal. The problem isn’t just solved, it’s dissolved. It’s also the most common approach in brainstorming overall – that is, if the problem can be addressed, attacked or removed. That’s not always the case as 100% elimination of the problem can be extremely expensive, time consuming and politically sensitive, not only with the public and key opinion leaders, but also internally among senior executives or the board of directors.
That said, I’ve also seen this approach used in humorous ways. When the caffeine beverage Mother changed its taste due to customer feedback, the PR team very publicly destroyed the old bottles with a tank. Regardless of whether it’s humorous or serious, tactics in this approach tend to be extremely visible: public events and stunts, followed by intense traditional and social media relations.
Reduce It – This approach lessens the problem, often without eliminating the original problem entirely, because 100% reduction is impossible, unrealistic or long-term. Also, problems in this category tend to be behavioral issues of the target audience, either physical reduction (ex: consumption, waste or addictions) or emotional reductions (ex: anger, boredom or apathy). If this is true in your situation, you might spend more time than usual on psychographics to more fully understand the point-of-view of the audiences, if not engage them in the brainstorm itself.
Harris goes on to say there are three ways to address Effect: Treat It, Tolerate It, or Redirect It. In communications, these approaches might be taken as passive, so the tone and style of the campaign should be overtly proactive.
Treat It – This is repairing or fixing the problem. The advantage of this approach is that it’s tailor-made for hands-on involvement to solve the problem, either by internal groups (senior executives, influential employees) or external publics (concerned consumers or citizens). The disadvantage of this approach is that it can be construed as less effective than elimination of the problem, or worse, “too little, too late.” You need to be quick and thorough in roll-out and implementation. Perhaps of the six approaches here, this strategy lends itself nicely to credible experts and spokespeople who can offer commentary and stimulate conversation.
Tolerate It – This is my least favorite of the six approaches because it’s essentially compromising. But, in the right situations, this can be an effective method, especially when the tactics are temporary and transitional. Or, it’s useful if the most effective solution is a wise negotiation between two opposing parties or opinions. In this approach, I’ve again found it extremely helpful to engage third parties, not just for influential opinion, but also for creating the tactics or next phase of tactics to implement.
Redirect It – As Harris says in his original white paper, the problem in this approach is deflected. For those of us in the communications industry, it’s about bringing to light another point of view for context and balance. For people outside our industry, it’s either known as spin or propaganda.
The problem with spin generally is two-fold: it makes it harder for the listener to determine what it true, and the opposing point-of-view often feels like an accusation or blame. For example, when I was a MasterCard spokesperson, I was often attacked by reporters for not taking full responsibility in encouraging teens to spend beyond their means. They were loath to acknowledge our opinion: that the parent must shoulder some of the burden in teaching their children financial responsibility.
If I learned one thing about this approach, it only works when you – as a spokesperson, as well as the overall campaign’s tone – is transparent, lucid, sensitive, and offered as another perspective. It works less well when the messages are “we're the right position” vs. “you’re the wrong position.”
What other approaches or strategies have you used to address problems in your campaigns or projects?