What? So What? Now What?


Photo by Zac Nielson on Unsplash
12 August 2018

As long as we’re growing, be it personally, professionally, or in any other way, we’re constantly being confronted with new events and new information. Our task as engaged colleagues, artists, mentors, teams, leaders, companies, friends, lovers, etc. is to constantly look at each piece of information and decide the following:

  • What are we looking at?
  • What does it mean to us?
  • What should we do next?

In other words Observe, then Feel and Evaluate, and finally Respond.

This is neatly summarised in the phrase What? So What? Now What?, an evaluation and facilitation model I first learned from the amazing Kathleen Paris and, subsequently, through the book Liberating Structures.

What?

What did we actually see? This is strictly an observation, an agreement of the facts. No evaluation or judgement at this stage. Do say: “Jim had his arms crossed during the meeting.” Don’t say: “Jim was angry.” Unless we observed Jim saying “I’m angry” we don’t know. All we know is that his arms were crossed during the meeting.

So What?

How do these observations make us feel? What meaning does this have for us? E.g. “Because 300 people RSVP’d for the party, I’m nervous we won’t have enough food & drink.” or “Because Anna didn’t ask any questions during the meeting, we felt like she didn’t like our ideas.” This is a critical and often overlooked step that requires people to take ownership of their feelings and acknowledge that their feelings have tremendous value. It can also underscore how the same stimulus can create very different feelings in different observers.

Now What?

Make a clear decision about what action to take next (e.g. Buy more food for the party.) Articulate these as clear decisions with clear actions, owners, and deadlines if possible.

Clearly delineating each of these steps provides structure and intentionality to what can otherwise, be a highly chaotic and emotionally charged process. Evaluation is critical to understanding how to move forward, but mixing judgement with observation can cloud your thinking and prevent meaningful discourse. Keep each step separate.

It’s everywhere!

Now that I’ve become aware of this technique, I’m seeing it everywhere!

In Nonviolent Communication (NVC), the first step in looking at any complex interpersonal situation is to make a purely objective observation about what has happened, without any language that implies blame or judgement, whatsoever. This is easier said than done. From there, we identify how these events make us feel and what needs of ours are (or are not) being met (So What?), and finally, we make a clear request of what we’d like to see happen next (Now What?).

In an Agile team, we use the “daily standup” to talk about what we’ve done, and what we’re going to do next. Following each sprint, we look objectively at what we delivered; then we “retrospect” about what that means to us and how we can get better at delivering. Finally, we make a commitment about what to do differently in the next sprint.

Using quarterly OKRs to track progress, we quantifiably measure the outcomes of our Key Results, and then capture our “Lessons Learned” and use this to determine what objectives to pursue next and how to measure them.

When responding to a crisis, whether in the moment or afterwards as part of a post-incident-review, the first step is always to gather accurate, factual information (without any judgement), then to evaluate what it means, and finally to agree a course of action.

UPDATE: My former colleague Nick Smith and Martin Gilbraith have both pointed out that What? So What? Now What? is a close cousin of the ORID facilitation model: Observe, Reflect, Interpret, Decide. Like NVC above, ORID adds an explicit “reflect” step inviting us to think about how we feel when making these observations. You might include this in the “So What?” stage but whatever you do, don’t leave out your emotions! They are a powerful tool in evaluating what’s happening in any situation.

Summary

When faced with a complex, frightening, or confusing situation I find it enormously useful to myself (and the teams I work with) to step back, breathe, and remember these three steps. It prevents us running around like headless chickens and gives us clear time and space to firstly gather information and agree upon what we’re looking at (without any judgement or “solusionizing”), then to decide what these observations mean (judge & evaluate to our hearts’ content), and finally, to agree what to do next (time to Strategerize)!

While there are many similar models from ORID, to NVC, to OKRs, I like the simplicity and memorability of What? So What? and Now What?.

A former GDS colleague Will Myddelton has done a nice write-up on how What? So What? Now What? enhances his practice of user research.

How do you use this technique? Let me know!

Thanks for reading! I'm always looking to raise my game and meet like-minded people so if you have questions, ideas, or suggestions, please contact me.