Swimming upstream – creating space to think

I’m in the midst of delivering a bespoke global training programme aimed at helping a client’s marketing teams to develop even more effective marketing plans. But, there’s one element that makes me uneasy.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

This Albert Einstein quote is one I’m particularly fond of and it features in the first day of our training. It’s there to help remind action-orientated marketers of the importance of connecting customer & market insights, business goals and marketing activity.
Invest in thinking to step-change choices
So much of work as marketers relies on accurately defining the problem we’re trying to solve. That challenge could be how to develop a product/service that answers a real market need; write a sharp creative brief for an agency; or deliver an internal presentation to win support from others.
These are all important tasks where overlooking the upfront exploration and thinking phase can easily lead to a tonne of wasted time and effort, perhaps even reputational damage with our stakeholders.
But why is this upfront investment so critical? When a strategy is agreed and projects are advanced, they develop a momentum that often devours increasing amounts of time, energy and money. If we’re answering the wrong challenge – or a poorly defined one – this exponential commitment of resource simply amplifies wastage.
Real world

However… I’ve done marketing jobs in various commercial settings for over two decades and when I’m using this quote in training, I’m also acutely aware just how difficult it is in the real world to swim against the tide and create necessary time/space. This is especially true when everyone and everything around us seems to be screaming “act now”.

So, what practical steps can we take to invest the deep thinking upfront that enables us to make fewer, but better and quicker choices throughout a project?

How can we get out of the detail, take a broader perspective and access more of our brain’s creative capacity? We all need to find the approaches that work best for us individually, but here are a few tricks I’ve picked up from years of observing others who need to do some deep thinking:

  • Allocate a journey to think about it – trains and planes are often conducive to exploring an issue, they can offer uninterrupted thinking time and a view of the sky or horizon which can promote a better perspective.
  • Define a time & place to do quality thinking – you could book a meeting room at the office, or better still, find a coffee shop or cafe which becomes your designated thinking space.  Take a notepad, post-it notes and ditch the tech.  Most of our workdays are run from calendars on Outlook or Google, so fix thinking time in diaries to maximise the chances it will happen (even if you have to fake the odd appointment).
  • Outlaw interruptions – recent research found that it takes over 23 minutes to get back ‘on task’ after an interruption – i.e. 3 interruptions have screwed up over an hour.  Look at ways to minimise interruptions: put phone into flight mode (or better still) leave your phone in a desk draw out of sight. Switch off email pings or switch off laptop altogether.
  • Don’t think about it – it might sound counter intuitive, but there’s a reason why many people have their best ideas in the shower or bath.  Putting some space between ourselves and an issue, especially if we’re in danger of obsessing about it, can provoke fresh ideas.
  • Chat with someone outside your immediate team – several of my clients are the most senior marketer in their company or business unit, so I sometimes act as the sort of impartial peer-level sounding board that’s not readily available in their business.

Alternatively, you could find people with different perspectives, experiences or skill-sets from another part of your organisation or a peer in a non-competitive company to ‘kick around’ the problem. This is especially useful if you’re an extrovert and benefit from the energy of others.

  • Recognise a rut & climb out of it – we can activate creative thinking by creating small interruptions to our non-conscious (“auto pilot”) routines.  A change to environment can be a surprisingly powerful disruption: go for a walk in nature (which supports wellbeing & creativity), visit a different place for lunch, take a different route to/from work, use the stairs instead of the lift.


As well as these “self-management” approaches, there are various frameworks and exercises which can also promote quality thinking from individuals and teams. These can be incorporated into the bespoke capability development and strategic facilitation that we offer at Brand Ambition – please get in touch if you’d like to chat further.

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