Why We Like To Work Backwards

Photo by Jon Asato on Unsplash

There are times when we receive a very specific request from a current or prospective client. It may be a request for a new website, a new campaign, or anything they may seek us out for. But if we just take the request at face value, we don’t uncover what the real need may be. That’s because oftentimes, a request like that doesn’t give us the proper insight into how we can truly help themĀ  with what they’re ultimately trying to achieve.

If someone comes to us and says “We need a new website,” what they may really be saying is that their site isn’t driving the inquiries they are looking for and they assume that the aesthetic and communication is one of the barriers. But digging deeper you may find that the site has been stagnant because there’s a disconnect between the sales and marketing teams on their brand positioning and nobody wanted to invest in updating the site. By listening, asking the right questions, and challenging assumptions, we can often discover more fundamental things that we can help with that will make that tactic we were asked to help with even more successful. We like to think of this as working backwards – what are we really trying to solve, what are the true issues we’re trying to overcome, and how are we going to get there.

how first principles thinking can help

From Socrates to Elon Musk, some of humankind’s greatest thinkers questioned everything – even the question. For an introduction to first principle thinking and how it’s practically implied you can listen to Musk explain it:

Several years ago the idea of a cab would come with a set of assumptions. It was likely yellow, you hailed it on the street or called the company, there was a good chance it was a Crown Victoria, it had a meter, and drivers would go down streets looking for their next passenger. Using first principles thinking, you could break down some of those characteristics and get to why they exist and what the possibilities are if they didn’t. Why are they yellow? Maybe so they were highly visible. Why do they need to be be highly visible? So people can see them. What if people didn’t need to see them? Ask a few more of those questions and you can start to see how an idea like Uber can begin to develop. It’s not to say that this type of thinking is going to automatically lead to a multi-billion dollar idea or a successful business. Rather, it’s a tool we can use to try to ensure we’re not just asking the right questions but we’re exploring curiosity.

If we only think and act on our assumptions or sets of information we think we already know we may only end up working on the symptoms and not the causes, leading to superficial solutions. We use our assumptions as short cuts to understand an audience, how we think they’ll behave, and their motivations. But even a brief pause in our thinking to use some first principles can lead us to discovery deeper motivations and ways we may want to resonate with them. Where it really helps with marketing or finding out what tactics should be priorities is breaking down the problems to their most fundamental level, then finding out the opportunity for your brand. Maybe that initial request is still part of the solution set, but maybe you uncover a much more holistic approach that can be a game-changer for the brand.

For a great read on First Principle Thinking, check out this article by Farnam Street.