all too often, we're defining and then solving the wrong problem, not the real problem.

Solve the right problems

One of the first things you learn as an aspiring engineer is that if you first carefully define a problem, you’re halfway to solving it.*

But all too often, we’re defining and then solving the wrong problem, not the real problem.

For example, try bringing a decent sized bottle of shampoo onto an airplane – it will be quickly confiscated in a perfect example of efficiently solving the wrong problem. The wrong problem definition inevitably leads to the wrong solutions.

Now, let’s look at a credit union marketing problem everyone has: membership growth.

The problem definition most people use is simply “we need more members”. But this definition is far too broad and too simple to be useful. It leads to expensive scattershot marketing — advertise everywhere! Give ’em $100 to sign up! Blanket the airwaves! Set up tables on the sidewalk, and sign up anyone with a pulse!

But when you break the problems into specific pieces, the problems start to become solvable.

Plus, the more specific the problem definitions, the more specific and effective the solutions. Some more useful problem definitions might include:

“We need to reduce attrition among multi-service members who are staying in the state.”

“We need to gain profitable members in these zip codes near our new branch.”

“A new Chase branch opened downtown, and we need an answer to members tempted by their cash back offer.”

“Too many of our new members have only one service and then leave in a year or two.”

“According to last month’s new member survey, 92% still carry balances on credit cards somewhere else.”

“We’re not sure why so many members on the West side are leaving.”

A good problem statement leads you straight to many possible solutions.


*Sometimes people are surprised to learn that I actually started college in the School of Engineering. (It wasn’t until a year and a half later, that I switched to the Professional Writing program, then got all mixed up with credit unions.) The experience certainly wasn’t a waste. That problem-solving mindset probably explains the analytical way I approach branding and marketing – writing and engineering are both about defining and solving problems.

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