Why great thought leadership is about problem finding – not problem solving

Rob Mitchell

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions” – Albert Einstein

Does your audience really need more content? It depends. What they definitely do not need is more of the same: rehashed opinions; me-too commentary and noise. There is a lot of that kind of content out there, and all it does is give thought leadership a bad name.

We constantly hear that our audiences are drowning in content. As long ago as 2014, the marketing consultant Mark Schaefer came up with the termcontent shock’ – a mismatch between supply and demand that forces brands have to “pay” audiences to consume their content.

This is the age of information parity

In his book To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink explores a different side of this trend.

For most of human history, he explains, the relationship between buyer and seller was one of information asymmetry. Sellers knew more about their product or service than buyers, which gave them an intrinsic advantage in any transaction.

Today, the internet and the vast amounts of content being produced mean that we are closer to information parity. Buyers can find out about pretty much anything at the click of a mouse, which means they can be better informed and able to reach their own decisions without needing much information from a salesperson. A much-quoted statistic from Sirius Decisions is that up to 67% of the buyer journey is completed digitally, consuming the content your brand and others produce. This is information parity in action.

This idea of information parity got me thinking about how we can ensure the content we produce has value. When pretty much every company wants to be a ‘thought leader’, and when the barriers of entry to producing and distributing content are non-existent, the intrinsic value of most content is very low indeed. No wonder research finds that 70% of content produced by companies goes entirely unused.

Don’t seek to just solve problems – find them

So how do companies ensure that their content is among the 30% that does get noticed?

I would return to Daniel Pink. He believes that, given the information parity between seller and audience (or buyer), people involved in sales and marketing need to shift from problem solving to problem finding. His argument is that most buyers already know how to solve their problems – or they can easily find out, thanks to the vast amount of information that is already out there. What they are less able to do is to identify problems they do not even know they have or to see that their problem is something else entirely.

The best thought leadership takes a similar approach. It doesn’t just help the audience to solve problems they already have; it helps them to bring latent problems to the surface or to think differently about their more fundamental challenges.

Consider the example of a company that wants to reduce the costs of its finance function by investing in automation tools. Technology may appear to be the solution to its problem, but the real problem may be deeper than that. Perhaps a more fundamental obstacle is the productivity of the finance team, its composition or the way people are hired or trained. Technology might seem like the solution, but maybe the real problem to fix is something else entirely.

How to solve wicked problems

Moreover, the nature of problems in business has changed. Many have become “wicked problems” – a term coined by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber to describe problems that have no ‘right’ solutions, are difficult to define, are connected to other problems, involve stakeholders with different perspectives and evolve over time.

When they face wicked problems in business, such as embedding net zero targets, digitally transforming the business or responding to seismic shifts in consumer behaviour, managers should be suspicious of simple solutions. Instead, they should take a problem-finding approach.

What does problem finding mean in practice?

1. Bring a different perspective

When audiences think they know how to solve their problems, you need to come with a new angle that challenges the status quo and causes the buyer to pause for thought.

The nature of wicked problems means that solutions are rarely straightforward. It is vital to step back to reframe the issue and look at it from different perspectives – and providers of thought leadership can help to shape this process.

2. Make thought leadership a conversation, not a lecture

The delivery of thought leadership is as important as the content itself. Engage the audience in a conversation, be humble about what you don’t know and work collaboratively to identify underlying problems.

This needs to be a partnership between marketing, who typically produce the materials, and sales, who need to ignite those conversations using thought leadership as the catalyst.

3. Think about the empty chair

Soon-to-be-former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos famously leaves one seat empty during the company’s meetings. The empty chair represents the customer, and is designed to ensure that any decision made by the company is centred around customer need.

Thought leadership strategists would do well to adopt the empty chair strategy – with the audience as their customer. Rather than thinking about the message they want to get across, they should focus instead on what the audience needs to hear. And that is not a message that validates existing solutions, but that challenges, provokes and adopts a problem-finding mindset.

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About the author: Rob Mitchell

Rob leads FT Longitude’s strategic planning and sets the overall vision and priorities for the business. He manages the board-level relationship with FT Longitude’s parent company, the Financial Times group, and also oversees FT Longitude’s finances, people management and administration.

Prior to co-founding FT Longitude in 2011, Rob was an independent writer and editor. Between 2007 and 2010, he was a managing editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit and prior to that he was an editor at the Financial Times, where he was responsible for the newspaper’s sponsored reports, including the Mastering Management series.

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