I was recently having a conversation with a friend of mine over dinner. This friend runs a web design and development agency and often has potential clients come to him with work-related queries.
He was discussing a problem statement one of his clients had approached him with, with me. Here's how the conversation went.
Friend: So there's this baker friend of mine. Real student of the craft. Knows his bread like no other in town. Small operation though. Doesn't have a huge brand or anything yet. Wants to get his website redone. Know any good copywriters who could write the website copy and create content for him?
Myself: Why redo the website? What does he want out of it?
Friend: He wants to build it so that customers can place orders on the website itself.
Myself: How is he taking orders now?
Friend: So, the brand has an Instagram account with10k followers. He gets some orders from there, some others from WhatsApp."
Myself: Then why are you increasing friction in the process by routing prospects from Instagram to the website, where they'll drop like flies?
Friend: But he wants a website, says it will help him establish authority.
Myself: But how will people end up at the website?
Friend: Via Instagram.
Myself: But doesn't Instagram already make it terribly difficult for people to put external links.? 90% or more customers never click that link in the bio you always keep promoting in your captions. Why do you want to make things more difficult for people?
Friend: Yeah, that's there...
Myself: Why don't you just tell him to save money on the website and instead hire a full time person to manage Instagram content and DMs? That, I think, would be a way better investment than dumping money into a website no one is going to visit. After all, how many times do you remember going to a food brand website to buy a thing like bread?
Friend: You make a lot of sense. But telling him this will mean losing a project and some decent money.
Myself: No, by telling him this, I think you will help him in a way that'll make him a customer for life.
Just think about it, why does he need all this unnecessary complexity of running an e-commerce website with a payment gateway when he can simply work on building his brand's Instagram presence and accepting orders from there.
Once he has built sufficient order volume and a name for himself, he can invest some money in a fancy website. If you build it for him right now, it won't get him the results he wants and he likely won't approach you for work in the future.
Friend: Understood. But if you were working with me, I'd soon be left with no business :D
Myself: If I were working with you, you would get way bigger projects and much higher retention in the long term!
Most projects fail to achieve the results they intend to achieve simply because they start with answers, not questions.
We often fail to realize that projects are not goals in themselves. Projects are how goals are achieved. Businesses don't build websites, have social media accounts, hold events, develop products or publish books for their own sake.
These are merely a means to achieving certain ends.
Frank Gehry, the renowned architect famous for building one of the most celebrated museums in the world — the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain — has a great way of working with clients.
He just leads with one simple question:
“Why are you doing this project?”
The first thing he does when he meets with potential clients is engage in long conversations.
He acts like an advanced layperson and simply asks all sorts of questions to get a general vibe of the context he's dealing with. With no motive but curiosity, he explores the client’s needs, aspirations, fears, and everything else that has brought them to his door.
In fact, in the book How Big Things Get Done, author Bent Flyvbjerg describes how when Gehry was first approached in the 1990s to consider the project, he flew to Bilbao and met with officials from the government.
The government had already created a plan to create and run a Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Basque Country’s largest city. Officials had selected an elegant but abandoned building, originally built in 1909 as a wine warehouse, to be the future home of the museum.
Their only question as prospecting clients was:
Would Gehry consider doing the renovation?
But Gehry chose to take a few steps back and lead with the question:
“Why are you doing this project?”
The government officials explained that Bilbao was a remote place and didn't benefit from the enormous flow of tourists that annually flooded southern Spain and Madrid. A Guggenheim, officials hoped, would draw visitors to Bilbao and invigorate the economy.
They told Gehry that they wanted a building that could do for Bilbao and the Basque Country what the Sydney Opera House had done for Sydney and Australia: put them on the map and bring back growth.
So, Gehry inspected the old warehouse the officials had chosen for renovation.
He liked the building, but not for a project with that goal. The building would have to be torn down and replaced, he said. And that would be a shame when it could be put to good use some other way.
Gehry had another idea, however. He told the officials to forget the renovation and build a new, dazzling museum along the Nervion River, which ran through the city of Bilbao to the Cantabrian Sea.
The rationale was simple:
The goal to boost the economy was ambitious, requiring an increase in tourism. A new Guggenheim in a renovated building could perhaps deliver that in theory. But it wasn't very likely.
But dramatic new buildings in impressive locations like the Sydney Opera House can and do attract global attention. It would still be an enormous challenge, but that approach seemed more likely to deliver what the government wanted, or so Gehry argued.
The officials agreed.
The resulting building became an overnight sensation as art lovers from all over the world flooded the city. And they brought money. In the first three years of operation, almost 4 million people visited this once-obscure corner of Spain, injecting a little less than $1 billion (in 2021 dollars) into the region.
Gehry refused to go with the frame imposed on him by the Basques.
He chose to first identify the intent behind why the project was being funded and then sought the best way to achieve that intent.
If it were any other consultant, they would have been happy to get the money and deliver what was asked for.
But Gehry chose the more difficult route, made the case for a much more ambitious project than what he was proposed initially and turned it into such a success that today, the project has given its name to the “Bilbao effect” – a phenomenon whereby investment in culture and architecture can uplift a city or country's economy due to the increased footfall of tourists.
Imagine if the Guggenheim project was treated even a tad bit more casually. All that investment put in renovating that old warehouse would have likely made pennies on the dollar.
Asking “For what purpose?” and acting like an Advanced Idiot with basic fundamental questions at the beginning works wonders: it helps you arrive at the correct frame for the entire project, which in turn leads to the project achieving its intended goal/s.
In contrast, what we usually do is be Smart Alecks and have a solution already in mind without spending much time thinking about what problem exactly it is meant to solve.