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Solving Marketing Problems: Learn From Polya

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The world of math may owe a debt of gratitude to soccer. An injury from that sport is what prevented George Pólya from entering the Hungarian army during World War I. Pólya was a sort of mathematical Muhammad Ali... if the quantity of postulates, theorems, and inequalities named for a person is any indication.

Highly esteemed for his contributions in multivariate distributions, combinatorics, and heuristics, Pólya may best be remembered by non-math geeks as the author of How to Solve It, a book on solving problems. It has sold over a million copies and is still considered a classic.

Though riddled with math formulas, the book provides four steps in the solving of problems—not just math problems... any problems.

Taking the author at his word, I'd like to consider those steps in regard to marketing.

Step 1: Understand the problem


Great processes often seem to be created by people with, as they used to say on Monty Python, a keen sense of the obvious. The first step is simply to understand the problem.

Nevertheless, how quickly we often jump into a problem and start throwing around solutions and tactics before we fully comprehend the problem.

What aspects of the problem do we know for sure, versus what aspects are completely unknown? Are the unknowns knowable? Is there data? If we're jumping into a social media campaign, what problems are we addressing?

Step 2: Devise or make a plan (or—"the idea of the solution")

If we truly are confronting a problem in your marketing—something that needs to be remedied or solved—is it a unique problem, or have you seen it (or something similar) before? If you've seen the problem before, and that problem was solved, could that solution be relevant in this new situation?

If there are unknowns in the problem, did you confront a problem before with the same or similar unknowns?

Pólya suggests you try restating the problem. Sometimes, just by stating it differently, the path to a solution presents itself.

If you cannot solve the problem, first try to solve some related problem, he suggests. Alternatively, can you solve a part of the problem? Or can you imagine...

  • A more accessible related problem?
  • A more general problem?
  • A more special problem?
  • An analogous problem?

By asking and answering those questions and others that Polya lays out in this step, you should eventually come up with a plan for the solution to your problem.

Step 3: Carry out the plan

If we were to compare Pólya's problem solving steps to the famous PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) of W. Edwards Deming, and used in the LEAN process, this would be the DO part.

  • Check each step.
  • Can you see clearly that the step is correct?
  • Can you prove that the step is correct?

At this point, if we're applying this problem-solving to a marketing problem, we'd be mapping out how the work is going play out. For instance:

Problem: increase sales 20% in an attempt to remain competitive

The solution might be to help our brand be present in 50% more discussions of the products in our competitive arena. How the market responds to 50% more discussions might be the unknown.

Step 4: Look back at the completed solution (or—"review and discuss it")

In most process improvement methodologies, there is a step for measuring or reviewing your outcomes, and revising or re-orienting. Pólya's suggestions include the following:

When you reconsider and re-examine the result and the path that led to it...

  • Can you check the result?
  • Can you check the argument?
  • Can you derive the result differently?
  • Can you see it at a glance?
  • Can you use the result, or the method, for some other problem?

* * *

The next time you're working on a major marketing problem, try Pólya's steps—if for no other purpose than to spur innovative thinking during a brainstorming session.

Later in How to Solve It, Pólya writes, "It would be a mistake to think that solving problems is a purely 'intellectual affair'; determination and emotions play an important role.... [W]ill power is needed that can outlast years of toil and bitter disappointments."

In marketing, we never have years to solve our problems. But in borrowing from scientific and mathematical approaches, we may yet overcome obstacles more quickly and efficiently.


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Ric Dragon is the author of Social Marketology: Improve Your Social Media Processes and Get Customers to Stay Forever, and the cofounder and CEO of DragonSearch, where he has led social media strategy for Steuben, the Grammy Foundation, Raritan, and other organizations. Reach him via Facebook and Twitter (@RicDragon).

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