After working in the creative industry for over 15 years, I have arrived at two certainties. The first is that creatives are problem solvers. Our ability to solve square pegs in round hole situations or, in some instances, to create a whole new peg is valuable. After all, innovation opposes the phrase “it’s always been done this way.” The second certainty is along the same lines. It is to remember that not all problems are equally created and that as creatives, we should seek to solve the most significant problems that we can, but we should help those around us to know whether they are solving the correct problems.

Often, clients approach us to solve what they describe as a visibility issue. “We need our website to be seen by more people” or “I need a new logo to help get us noticed” are repeated phrases that I am sure anyone who works in anything marketing-related has heard before. Of course, these deliverables are essential to the client, but often these problems are secondary to something more significant. Therefore, to help our clients jump over their biggest hurdles, we must first help them see the deeper underlying issue at play and show them the root problem. A point aside, this principle is effective in both working and social situations and may even solve some interpersonal turmoil.

One helpful tool to better determine the root of a problem is the Five Whys method. Developed by Sakichi Toyoda, this ingenious technique became an integral part of the Toyota Production System and the company’s Lean Philosophy, which improved the quality and reduced costs of the company’s products and services. By beginning with an overarching issue, the problem-solver asks a series of “why” questions that aim to inspect a particular problem in depth until it reveals the actual “root” cause.

For example:

Why is our longstanding business lagging on sales?  
Our company isn’t attracting as many quality customers as it once did.

Why is our company attracting fewer quality customers?
We are attracting fewer customers because our competitors are gaining more market share.

Why are our competitors gaining more market share?
Our competitors are gaining more market share because they receive more attention than before.

Why do our competitors receive more attention?
Our competitors receive more attention because they have better brand awareness.

Why do our competitors have better brand awareness?
Our competitors have better brand awareness because their brand connects with their target market more meaningfully.

We can be more confident that we are solving significant problems most effectively by drilling down to their root issue. This type of deeper understanding is critical to being a creative problem solver because the better we understand a problem, the more positioned we can be to solve it.

A word of advice. Avoid the common mistake of asking too many whys. Questions are valuable, but in this exercise, too many can easily take the seeker into the weeds of endless unreasonable suggestions and reproach, which is not the intention.