When problems arise, whether they are in marketing, politics or life, everyone looks for a solution. We have all been programmed to solve problems with solutions.
Interestingly, my many years of being in the problem solving business has led me to believe that often, looking for a solution is a fool’s errand. There is no easy solution for complex problems. What there is, is a direction. The reason is that often there are too many variables in a situation. Unlike solving a mathematical problem, you are often dealing with the human condition, which certainly adds a level of complexity that would drive a mathematician to drink. There’s competition, or personal agendas or disruptive technology or, in diplomacy, country interest.
A longer-term direction is a lot more flexible as it gives you some maneuvering room to deal with change and unpredictable events. Often just knowing where you are going is the best you can do in a difficult situation. It also is the essence of a good strategy.
Let me explain this process in two examples. One is a business problem and the other is a diplomatic problem. Both are very complex and very serious. And both are very similar.
The first is General Motors. As you’ve read, there is no easy solution for a company that has steadily lost market share for over twenty years. The result: too many plants, too many people, too many retirees with high health care costs and brands that have lost their meaning with years of making them look alike, sound alike and pricing them alike. This situation can only be resolved with a direction and that direction is obvious. GM has to reposition all its brands so that the marketplace will know the difference between Saturn, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick and Cadillac. In other words, if BMW stands for driving, Volvo stands for safety and Toyota stands for reliability, what do GMs brands stand for? In many ways it is what Alfred Sloan did when he put GM on a successful run to achieving almost half of the U.S. car market.
Getting this done won’t be easy, as each brand must be given a unique position, styling and pricing and then each must stand on their own. In other words, you’re talking about major surgery and, if necessary, cutting out a brand that has no natural place to go in a world of killer competition. Doing this in the short term will not be possible. It will be a long, step-by-step journey. But, at least you will know where you are going. It is a clear direction.
The second example is the mother of all problems. It’s called Iraq. You might say that Iraq isn’t a marketing problem. I beg to differ.
To me this is a gigantic selling problem to the U.S. public, the world community and to the Iraqis. But there is no easy solution to sell which is why Mr. Bush has had so much trouble selling his ideas. Every so-called “solution” has failed or has been picked apart. It’s time to try selling a “direction”.
Like GM. Iraq has a multitude of brands: The Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shiites. And, again like GM, the current attempt is to force them to put their differences aside and form a unified government where they all look alike and sound alike. It’s apparent that this “solution” isn’t working because these brands don’t trust each other and, if you read history, they never will.
So what’s called for is a direction that accommodates this basic fact of life in Iraq. So what makes sense is, again like GM, to let brands run independently. That means three states with their own security and legislation. The only role for a federal government is to find a way to divide up the resources (oil revenue) so that each brand can build a degree of prosperity for their people. And prosperity is your best weapon against terrorism. Why? Because people quickly realize that terrorism is bad for business.
Would people in the U.S. buy this strategy? Absolutely. Would Iraq’s neighbors buy in? Absolutely. Will the world community think it’s a good direction? No doubt. And, with an oil-sharing program, the Iraqis would most likely buy into this direction.
The toughest sell would probably be the current administration that has been marketing a unified country as an example of freedom and Democracy in the Middle East.
But hey, what do I know, I’m only a marketing guy trying to encourage good directions instead of just solutions.