The first, and most important step, in being successful in any thought leadership endeavor is getting your problem statement right.
Thought leadership exists to provide potential clients with a more effective, more cogent solution to a complicated, difficult, and highly pressing business problem. It presents such a sound argument that, by definition, it invites people to follow. If it’s not doing that, you’re just pushing more content into the world.
As a result, for any piece of thought leadership to be effective it must start with a clear, crisp problem statement. Ultimately, if you don’t get the problem statement right, you’ll never be able to articulate a better solution, and you wind up just adding more noise to an already noisy marketplace. So, let’s get this right.
Whether you’re a practice leader, a marketing leader, or a firm owner, you probably have some sense of a topic you need to own. Maybe it’s something about data or cloud computing. Or innovation or growth. Or efficiency and performance. But stating the topic isn’t enough. You must translate the topic into an effective problem statement. Often, this doesn’t happen. Or it’s simply not done well.
What Poor Problem Statements Look Like
Over the years, I’ve found that poor problem statements fall into one of four buckets:
- They Aren’t Problem Statements at All — The obvious place to start is when someone in the firm wants to pursue a topic but hasn’t really taken the time to articulate the real problem that topic represents to your clients. For example, someone in your firm might say, “Everyone’s talking about blockchain. We need to develop a POV on it.” Sounds good. But do you really? Are your clients talking about blockchain? How does it affect their world?
- The Problem is Too Narrow — Most frequently the problem statement is quite clear, it’s just too narrow. The problem is locked far down inside a client organization, and it fails to clearly ladder up to a core business driver. For example, “Retailers don’t trust the quality of their customer data.” That’s clearly a problem statement, but how does it impact their business? Why should they care?
- The Problem is Too Broad — Often, the firm is trying to boil the ocean. They’re going after a topic that’s so big and so broad that it’s almost impossible to build a compelling POV around it. It’s such a big problem that arriving at any cogent solution to it is nearly impossible. An example here: “Middle market companies are struggling to achieve digital transformation.” This is probably true but it’s hard to bind. What’s a middle market company? What’s digital transformation?
- It’s a Solution Masquerading as a Problem — Often, firms think they’re speaking to a problem but they’re just taking one of their solutions and trying to reframe it as if it is a problem. Your firm should be marketing to your client’s problems and leading them to your solutions. An example of this came across my desk a few weeks ago, an IT services firm wanted to produce a white paper about the need for distributors to start measuring time. It feels like a problem. Distributors aren’t measuring time? Shouldn’t they? Why aren’t they? But, it’s really just pushing a solution….a time and attendance system perhaps?
What Good Problem Statements Look Like
If we flip the coin here, good problem statements tend to hit on five things:
- Speaks Specifically to Your Ideal Client — To start, a good problem statement is crafted such that you can see, hear, and feel your ideal client represented right within it. You’ve bound it by the types of companies and the types of people you most want to do business with.
- Clearly Ladders to Core Business Drivers — No matter how narrow or specialized your expertise, you must deeply understand your core value proposition. An effective problem statement should connect back to one of four business drivers: help clients grow revenue, reduce costs, reduce risk, or improve financial outcomes.
- Represents a Burning Problem — The litmus test here is the staying power of the problem. Is this a problem that’s going to go away in a few months? Or is this an issue that’s here to stay for the foreseeable future? The best problems for you to own are ones that are sticky in nature and represent burning platforms where clients are hungry for new and better solutions.
- Serves as a Basis for a Research Query — If needed, a research partner should be able to read your problem statement and quickly identify what they need to do (who they need to talk to and what types of questions they’ll need to ask).
- Lacks Ready Answers — If the solution to your problem statement is readily apparent then there’s really no use in developing any new thinking in this area. You’d like the problem to represent something that takes some time, thought, and energy to arrive at an effective solution.
- Leads to Your Expertise — This one is a bit tricky because the best thought leadership tends to uncover new solutions to unmet client needs so having a specific solution in mind is usually a mistake. But it’s important to be sure that the likely solution to the problem leads to an area of expertise your firm already has.
Here’s an example of an effective problem statement for an argument we helped a client shape last year: The pandemic has made risk part of manufacturers’ supply chain decisions again. How should manufacturers respond? More specifically, how should COOs and Chief Supply Chain Officers balance risk and efficiency in their supply chains moving forward?
Tips on Getting Your Problem Statements Right
As you work on your next thought leadership initiative, make sure you can answer all these questions before you go to market:
- Do our clients have this problem? If so, do they know that they do?
- Does this problem clearly connect to a core business driver?
- Do we know what the solution is to the problem? Is our solution a better one?
- Do we have proof that the solution works? Can we point to real world examples of the solution?
Some of these questions may be quickly answered in the problem statement itself. And others will take some digging. But, if your final output can check all 4 boxes, you’ll likely be very happy with the results.