What would solve the COVID back-to-school standoff? Perhaps a great creative brief.

A creative brief is the foundation upon which innovative ideas are built. It provides constraints, direction and clarity. It leads to more memorable ‘a-ha’ moments, and campaigns that burrow themselves deep into our mind.

Every creative brief begins with a problem to solve. Great briefs go even deeper, unearthing insights into our psyche: what’s the problem behind the problem behind the problem?

If you begin a project with an insightful creative brief, it pushes your thinking beyond the obvious, giving you a glimmer into thoughts and feelings far below the surface of our daily cognition. As Henry Ford famously said, if he’d asked people what they wanted in transportation innovation, they would’ve replied a faster horse. Ford gave them something they had no idea they wanted. They responded enthusiastically because deep down inside, cars satisfied a yearning for something, well, more than a faster horse

With this in mind, I want to turn our attention to the standoff between school boards and government over back to school mandates during the latest COVID outbreak. This crisis could do with a good creative brief.

Verbalizing audience psychology in the creative brief

If I were drafting a creative brief to drive ideas that would end this standoff, I’d begin by stating the obvious problem: teachers believe they’re putting their lives at risk by going back to class, while government believes it will derail the economy (and sewer voter empathy) if it doesn’t mandate that kids need to go back to school.

You may argue that the story is much more nuanced:

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  • It’s a power play by school boards to win more concessions.
  • It’s a half-baked, politically expedient initiative by government, absent any real investment in better school ventilation, more effective masks, or classroom space shifting.
  • The spirit is willing, but there simply aren’t enough healthy teachers to make a go of it.
  • Teachers feel abandoned by their leadership.

If those ideas crossed your mind, congratulations, you’re on the right track. There’s more to this than meets the eye.  Peel back the onion and you begin to see there are motivations behind actions that surface only when you look at the problem from multiple angles.

A good creative brief doesn’t lead to zero-sum solutions

A zero-sum solution is what school boards and the government seem headed toward. That means one side or the other will win. No innovative ideas, just a battle of wills and stamina.

The thing about zero-sum outcomes: half the people end up satisfied, and half end up seething.

Of course, the standard recourse is to meet somewhere in the middle. As one of my friends, a professional negotiator, said, this is the place where everyone involved winds up unhappy.

Certainly, they aren’t actually as unhappy as they’d be if they lost completely. But the outcome is still bitter.

Marc Stoiber Brand Strategy

A good creative brief pushes for unconventional, positive solutions

Any creative thinker worth their salt would look at the ‘negotiated solution’ idea, smile, then push on. Clearly, there has to be a solution that gives both parties a reward, and entices them to participate?

Here’s how that might look:

Marc Stoiber Brand StrategyI never thought of that is the cornerstone of a big idea.

For one, it’s disarming. The two parties are anticipating a negotiated solution, or a horribly acrimonious outcome. Imagine if they were delivered a solution (or number of solutions) that provided them with a new way to approach the problem that neither had considered? Hard to push back on something that didn’t exist a moment ago.

Another reason this is a big idea is reflected in the elevated position in the diagram. While my way and your way are muddling about in the mud, I never thought of that makes you look up. It has a positive feel to it.

Anchoring in the familiar

A new idea can be a wonderful thing. It can also be frightening in its unfamiliarity.

That’s why a creative brief should also point the creative thinker in the direction of solutions the audience is comfortable with.

Blending something radically new with something trusted and familiar is an unbeatable combination. Think of Tom Hanks’ screenwriting app that sounds like a typewriter. Think of the Apple logo.

A brilliant idea would not only present teachers and government negotiators with a solution that is disarmingly new, but also feels as reliable as a flannel shirt or old pickup truck. The optimal reaction shouldn’t be Oh, that’s new and weird, but rather I wish I’d thought of that.

Marc Stoiber Brand Strategy

Using this creative brief to generate ideas

So, what sort of ideas might be generated to ease tensions between teachers and government in the standoff?

First, looking at the problem behind the problem behind the problem, we understand that this whole issue might not be anchored in places (school, home) but rather in outcomes (student engagement).

If this became a debate about engaging students no matter where they are, teachers and government negotiators might begin looking for tools (like this one, called eGlass) that teachers can take wherever they are, and utilize with the same ease as a whiteboard. Students, meanwhile, would feel connected to their teacher because eGlass enables them to see the teacher’s face up close at all times – whether they’re in class or sitting on Zoom.

Another solution might be blended learning taken to the extreme. With blended learning, teachers break students into different groups, and assign them different ways of learning the same material. Some groups learn from the teacher directly. Others watch teacher-recorded videos and workshop together. Still others study on their own, then bring the teacher questions. If you think of combining this concept with student dispersion (1/3 of the class works in the class, 1/3 works with videos at home, and a final 1/3 workshops at a library or community centre) it would do wonders for limiting class sizes.

Each of the solutions above is both new (especially eGlass) but anchored in the familiar. Which would take the fear out of adoption.

I don’t presume to have all the answers to this very complex issue. However, I do believe that if a problem appears intractable, very often it’s the creative brief that needs to be addressed first.

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