Are you Problem Solving or Capacity Building?

Adopting the consulting mindset to work on impactful projects

Hi! The SEO MBA newsletter has been on an extended pause while I was traveling with my family but I’m back at it. Normal bi-weekly emails are resuming AND I’m going to be announcing cohort #2 of the course very soon (likely next week, so stay tuned!).

For subscribers old and new, the SEO MBA is a newsletter around leadership, management, and consulting skills for SEO professionals. There’s an online course coming soon. Thanks, Tom.


Work with a dev team to fix a sitemap and get traffic for a day. Teach them to fix their own sitemap and get traffic for ever!

I mean… obviously? But what’s less obvious is that “teaching a team to fix their own sitemap” never comes for free. Indeed, these things tend to compound; teams will need additional resources to do additional things. Not to mention, how do you create the trust to work on the system itself (sitemap QA process) rather than on the problems created by the system (a broken sitemap)?

Today let’s look at a foundational mindset shift.

Every SEO is a Consultant

Every SEO professional is a consultant. Whether in-house or agency-side, you need to develop ways of working cross-functionally, getting buy-in from adversarial stakeholders, and changing other team’s systems and processes.

When you step into the role of consultant, it’s easy to think that problems are the focus - things to be “fixed,” “solved” and “improved”. As a result it can be natural to take pleasure in identifying problems. That smell of a fresh client just waiting to be carved up by sharp 2x2s. A client with problems is a good client for a consultant, right?

And yet…

From my experience, focusing on problems to be solved gets in the way of working on the systems that generated those problems in the first place. (Not to mention that no one likes the a$&hole who is always talking about what’s broken…)

Instead we need to re-orient from focusing on fixing problems to focusing on building new systems.

Problem Solving Consulting vs Capacity Building Consulting

When you’re a consultant you have a choice: between problem solving and capacity building. There’s a great article on this by Paresha Sinha and Philip Ramsey: Consultants as Problem Solvers or Capacity Builders?

Consultants are ideally capacity builders who develop links between research and practice rather than problem solvers. They provide methods and tools to help others expand their capabilities and skills on an ongoing basis, thereby transforming concepts into practical know-how and results. These consultants may have knowledge in a variety of areas, but the contribution they make is framed as building capacity for learning and interpersonal connections rather than providing expertise.

The key differences between the two approaches is here (though I recommend reading the whole article):

In essence, you can adopt the stance of the “SEO expert” and seek to “solve problems” - which is often a short term mindset. Or you can treat the problems as symptoms of a system that can be evolved, and become an “SEO capacity builder” and help the system create its own SEO success.

The mindset shift is subtle but powerful - and yet the SEO industry in particular has been drilled for years around problem solving. The very language of the SEO industry reveals this fundamental misalignment: audits, technical issues, fixes and optimization.

Let’s look at some SEO examples for problem solving and reframe them with a capacity building mindset:

Though all of the things in the problem solving column are worth doing, they sit within a system. There’s a bigger context to consider: how this problem emerged, what the structure of the organization is etc. This is what the article calls “double loop learning:”

When we engage in single-loop learning, as is typical of a problem-solving approach, we take action to solve a problem, assess the consequences of our intervention, and use what we learn in taking new actions; we continue this process until we think we have solved the problem. Single-loop learning might involve asking, “Did the action solve the problem? Did we meet the standards we had set?”

In double-loop learning, which is a key element of building capacity to handle change, we assess not only the effect of our actions on the problem, but also the variables that shape thinking within the organization more broadly. We do this by asking questions such as, “What made us think this was a problem? Why did we set the standards in such a way?”

To train yourself to work on capacity building, ask yourself a simple question when you resolve any issue: when and how might this problem reoccur? This question opens up the space to consider working on the system, not in the system.

Good SEO is Doing Something. Doing Something Requires Capacity.

Many SEOs are so stuck in diagnosing problems and technical maintenance that they forgot to actually do something.

The best SEO case studies are about teams that DO something: build out a new set of landing pages, create a content strategy for new keywords, rebuild landing pages etc.

Unfortunately, doing something new within an existing system is incredibly difficult. Every time we identify a project that can be worked on we need to ask ourselves “Why hasn’t the organization already done this?”.

Very often the answer is simply that the organization undervalues the task at hand - and because of that doesn’t have any resources allocated to it.

So before we think about pitching a static set of improvements or fixes, we must think about how we might enable the organization to find this task valuable enough to continually invest in. Some questions to consider:

  • If this project is in fact valuable, is it valuable to be always doing it? 

  • How does this change the nature of the work if we’re always doing it? 

  • What processes, systems, resources, and reporting do we need in place?

Instead of trying to work within the existing system, we must consider changing the system itself.

Capacity Building Takes Time and Trust

Try and do this kind of deeper systems work early in an engagement however and you will get you laughed out of the room. From the same article above:

The problem-solving and capacity-building approaches appear to be quite separate models of how consultants can act. We might expect that consultants would consistently adopt one or the other of the approaches. Our research suggests, however, that consultants’ choices are more complex and have a lot to do with their clients’ assumptions about how to tackle the organizational challenges they face.

Simply put, if something is broken, you need to fix it. Early in a relationship you’re only trusted to directly work on the problem at hand. So you can’t leap straight away from a broken sitemap to a full QA process for the product team… Again from the article:

Six participants also mentioned the importance of developing trust with the clients before the capacity building work could take hold. Because practicing organizational learning concepts requires the involvement of both minds and hearts, along with deeper levels of communication, consultants reported feeling bolder in confronting clients about issues that needed to be addressed only as trust grew.

Again, this might seem obvious but how many people explicitly change their behavior as trust changes around them? 

So…

In summary, the role of the SEO is to be a consultant dedicated to changing other team’s processes and resourcing.  This requires a delicate balance between the systems that exist today and the trust you have built up to change the systems themselves.

Problem solving has its place but the most successful projects I’ve worked on are where I’ve been able to reign in my instinct to solve problems and instead worked to help the organization see key SEO initiatives as inherently valuable and invest in new systems and new capacity to work on them.

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Feels good to be back in the swing of sending emails. Look out for another email very soon announcing a new course enrollment! Thanks, Tom.