Can Industrial and B2B Marketers Learn Creative Problem Solving from Fifth Graders?

To be successful in industrial and B2B marketing, one has to engage with prospects and customers in a meaningful manner. Consultative selling is one of the recommended ways and that requires us to sharpen our listening and creative problem solving skills.

That’s great, if you are a natural born consultant but for the rest of us, we have to learn and master these skills. That is why the headline “The Creativity Crisis” in a recent article from Newsweek caught my attention.

According to the article, the Creativity Quotient (CQ) among American children has been in a steady decline since the early nineties. Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May, after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990.

Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

Many other media outlets have reported the same creativity crisis in America. What are consequences of this creativity decline to the business world?

A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. Yet it’s not just about sustaining our nation’s economic growth. All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the Gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering health care. Such solutions emerge from a healthy marketplace of ideas, sustained by a populace constantly contributing original ideas and receptive to the ideas of others.

Instead of focusing on the gloomy outlook, I found an encouraging lesson in creative problem solving from fifth graders at the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, a new public middle school in Akron, Ohio.

Mindful of Ohio’s curriculum requirements, the school’s teachers came up with a project for the fifth graders: figure out how to reduce the noise in the library. Its windows faced a public space and, even when closed, let through too much noise. The students had four weeks to design proposals.

Working in small teams, the fifth graders first engaged in what creativity theorist Donald Treffinger describes as fact-finding. How does sound travel through materials? What materials reduce noise the most?

Then, problem-finding — anticipating all potential pitfalls so their designs are more likely to work. Next, idea-finding: generate as many ideas as possible. Drapes, plants, or large kites hung from the ceiling would all baffle sound. Or, instead of reducing the sound, maybe mask it by playing the sound of a gentle waterfall?

A proposal for double-paned glass evolved into an idea to fill the space between panes with water. Next, solution-finding: which ideas were the most effective, cheapest, and aesthetically pleasing? Fiberglass absorbed sound the best but wouldn’t be safe. Would an aquarium with fish be easier than water-filled panes?

Then, the teams developed a plan of action. They built scale models and chose fabric samples. They realized they’d need to persuade a janitor to care for the plants and fish during vacation. Teams persuaded others to support them—sometimes so well, teams decided to combine projects. Finally, they presented designs to teachers, parents, and Jim West, inventor of the electric microphone.

Along the way, kids demonstrated the very definition of creativity: alternating between divergent and convergent thinking, they arrived at original and useful ideas. And they’d unwittingly mastered Ohio’s required fifth-grade curriculum—from understanding sound waves to per-unit cost calculations to the art of persuasive writing. “You never see our kids saying, ‘I’ll never use this so I don’t need to learn it,’ ” says school administrator Maryann Wolowiec. “Instead, kids ask, ‘Do we have to leave school now?’ ” Two weeks ago, when the school received its results on the state’s achievement test, principal Traci Buckner was moved to tears.

The raw scores indicate that, in its first year, the school has already become one of the top three schools in Akron, despite having open enrollment by lottery and 42 percent of its students living in poverty.

How can industrial and B2B marketers apply the same creative problem solving lessons in engaging with their prospects and customers? The answer lies in shifting from traditional company product marketing to customer problem oriented marketing. We need to develop customer-centric solutions-based marketing content instead of product-centric features and benefits marketing collateral.

According to Tim Riesterer of CMM Forum LLC (now part of Corporate Visions, Inc.), there are four key steps involved in creating customer solutions marketing that demonstrate how you can create value in the context of the customer’s problem. The four steps are:

1. Opportunity Development: Research, understand and distill the relevant industry-specific information, key issues and business needs in order to educate the company, especially the sales force, on the specific business requirements of a given market.

2. Solution Mapping: Look across the company’s portfolio of offerings to identify and put together – or map a solution for each of that market’s key business requirements – incorporating products, services and programs as needed.

3. Value Creation: From here, the company can create targeted messages and value messaging for each “mapped solution” – as it aligns with a specific business requirement within a market segment.

4. Proof Building: No solution story is complete without references. Finding the right testimony of any sort at the right time is difficult.

The concept of selling solutions instead of products has received lots of attention lately but the reality is that industrial and B2B marketers have found it difficult to translate that concept into actionable behavior.

There are too many instances where marketing content is used only in the initial phases for establishing credibility and showing the availability of a solution. As the conversation gets more serious, ad-hoc sales materials created by the sales team take over and do most of the heavy lifting. Instead of engaging the prospect in a meaningful conversation and discovering their real business issues, we resort to “Here’s what it is. Here’s what it does. Here’s why it’s good for you. And, here are some subtle differences from our competition that we think are important.”

I guess old habits are hard to break. What has been your experience in applying creative problem solving to industrial and B2B marketing? Share your thoughts.

4 replies
  1. Jack Pallet
    Jack Pallet says:

    The missing link in many sales presentations is a combination of clear, concise communication and the establishment of credibility. Busy prospects want to be able to grasp the advantages and benefits of a product within a short period of time and they want to be convinced that you are an expert and that you believe in the product and its value.

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