The Wrong Answer

Imagine you’re a doctor at a local practice and you call in the next patient into your office. They sit down and you load their file on your computer before turning to them to ask them what you can help with. They reply: “I need you to book me in for surgery. I’ve googled it. I'm pretty sure it’s my appendix.”*


How not to engage with a working relationship

First of all, let's acknowledge the elephant in the room.

The creative industry has a bit of a terrible habit of providing solutions without a diagnosis. In fact, it’s common practice to take a client’s request verbatim, go away and tinker on a solution, before returning to them with what they asked for, with little reference on why they need it in the first place. Admittedly yes, I've done that many times before.

It's true, the fastest way to provide a service to a client is to simply take orders. Then all that's left to do is figure out the nitty-gritty details like deadlines, scope, features and budget.

But, in amongst doing all the busy work, the question needs to be asked —are we building the right thing or are we missing the bigger picture? More often than not, to proceed down a solution-only mindset will increase the chances of disappointment from both parties.

  • Client: I need you to build me x
  • Consultant: Sure thing!
  • *
  • Consultant: Here’s x, as requested
  • Client: Thanks. But how come my z is still not working
  • Consultant: Oh, for that you actually need y
  • Client: …why didn't you tell me that?
  • Consultant: (under muffled breath) why didn't you ask...
  • Client: What was that?


Diagnosis, a better way

Let's review the situation. A client has come to us to build a fix for their problem. They know their business, they know what they need, they figured out the answer, they just need someone to do the work. It is at this point that we must take the duty of care... for sometimes they know not what they do.

In its simplest format, diagnosing is a matter of asking why lots of times. Why this? Why this this? Why this this this?

You can call it the Five Whys or the Socratic questioning method, either way, the purpose is to gain an insight into their underlying thoughts and motivations. It is through a curious mind and real empathy that not only do we get a better handle of the problem, we also start to build trust.  We, as external consultants, have the advantage of being an outsider. We are a fresh pair of eyes, ears, mind. Let's play to our strength and seek to understand this situation wholly.

When a client comes to us for help we first like to engage in a  discovery conversation. This is a 30-minute call usually where we ask as many questions as necessary and do our best to get to the root of the motivation for contacting us.


These questions look a little like:

“I’m curious, why do you need x?”

"What is the problem x will solve?"

"Why is this a problem?"

"Assuming the problem is solved, what will the future look like?"


Hopefully, by the end of the conversation, we're able to understand the size of the problem and whether we can provide value. Heck, it may even be that we aren't able to solve this problem for them. In the end, though, the goal is not to fix, it's simply to listen and seek to understand before rushing to building a thing for the sake of it.

There's enough waste out there in the world or online without us adding to it with ineffective work.

If in fact there is a real value that we can provide with our work, then we can look to engage in a deeper conversation on what the answer could look like.

Design does not live in a vacuum.

It exists to solve a problem or increase value in either reducing time effort, risk or money (or all the above) — and this is how we work.  As consultants, it is our responsibility to reply to a gung-ho client in the same way any good doctor should.

“You may be right, but let’s find out for sure”.

PS. For those wanting a deeper understanding of the ideal client to consultant engagements I highly recommend "A Win Without Pitching Manifesto" by Blair Enns.

*full disclosure, that patient is 100% inspired by me