Taking briefs: How to get behind the real issues
Ah, taking briefs – such a common minefield in everyday business life, especially if you work as a consultant or agent. Whether we’re working in an agency receiving client briefs or working client-side receiving briefs from our marketing partners, line manager and so on, we all face the same challenges.
Challenges when taking a brief
There’s much talk of objectives, goals, timelines, deliverables and budgets. Yet all too often when the job’s been done (and not always to everyone’s satisfaction), you hear people complaining that “the brief wasn’t clear enough”, “they moved the goalposts” or “it was totally unrealistic”. It’s easy to complain when it’s too late, but there are some simple actions you can take to not end up in such a pickle in the first place.
The first premise is to NOT assume that the person speaking to you knows exactly what they want and has really thought things through – no matter how confident and sure of themselves they sound.
Asking better questions
We should never underestimate the power of asking better questions at the outset in order to understand other people’s goals better and even help them understand their goals better. Over-enthusiasm to secure the work and fear of being obstructive or looking naive might stop a lot of people digging deeper to get to the heart of the brief.
But hang on a minute – the internal business partner or potential client has invited you to respond, so they respect you enough to hear your opinion. Part of that package of respect is likely to contain a willingness to be challenged by your unique, informed knowledge of your own core service. It’s OK to dig deeper if you show good logic and attention to detail. It’s all in the ‘how’.
I’ve seen many a brief that outlines the ‘need’, the desired outcome, the timescales and the importance of measurement. But when I’m reading them, I often notice that the real ‘why’ is missing. Thoughts that bother my inquisitive brain include ‘what’s the real problem?’ , ‘what do they really need help with right now?’, ‘where are their biggest knowledge gaps and where can my team or I add the most value with our unique set of skills, experiences and contacts?’ What indeed is behind the request in the first place?
Get to the heart of the brief by keeping in mind the following things:
- Don’t take it at face value. Work out what you still need to know so that you can do the best possible job AND add your unique touch.
- Find out whose brief it really is, because it very often isn’t coming from the person you’re dealing with.
- Ask for examples of similar projects where their brief was really ‘well met’. Where are the clues in how they respond? What language or emotion are you noticing? What do they value the most in their consultant or agent?
One of the most powerful questions you can ask at this point is ‘what does success look like?’ Often you’ll find that what they’re looking for is different from what they’ve asked for.
This is the number one question I always ask with every brief.
Another way of asking this question has been made famous by the founder of Strategic Coach, Dan Sullivan: if we were to meet 12 months (insert relevant time period) from now, what would have needed to happen for you to be happy with the progress that we’ve made?
Where does the request come from?
If you’ve been reading my last few blogs, you’ll notice that I’ve talked a lot about the value of developing empathy at work. In many ways, that theme continues here. It’s important for you to understand their agenda, who might be putting pressure on them to get this information – is it to prove a point or is it generally based on curiosity and open-mindedness. The more you can understand where a request is coming from, the easier it will be to deliver against it or at a minimum manage expectations realistically and upfront.
- What context do you need that they haven’t told you yet?
- What or whom do they not know that you DO know?
- What’s the need behind the request?
- What would success really look like in their eyes?
So, go on, next time you receive a brief, even if it looks crystal clear and especially if it gives you any seeds of doubt, give yourself permission to explore the ‘why’ a bit more. Ask a few wise and intelligent questions. You might just find that this in itself singles you out as caring more about the business and helping fulfil the brief to the best of your ability.
Every question you ask upfront saves you pain later down the line. Remember, questions are your friend.
Good luck! Feel free to leave a comment!