August 28, 2018

Create shared understanding with ‘What, So What, Now What’

Liberating Structures are facilitation techniques that allow you to unleash and involve everyone in a group — from extroverted to introverted and from leaders to followers. In this series of posts, we show how Liberating Structures can be used with Scrum. 

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Our human minds aren’t very accustomed to the complex, technological world we live in. We employ stereotypes to judge others, we generalize based on small observations and we jump to conclusions without considering the facts. This is especially tricky in the fast-paced environments we work in and the decisions we make there. “What new feature should we invest in for our product?”, “Why are we not delivering as rapidly as we should?” and “How can we avoid this incident from happening again?”

‘What, So What, Now What’ helps by asking us to step back and consider what is going on.

What, So What, Now What’ is a foundational Liberating Structure that helps by asking us to step back and consider what is going on. It structures our thinking by breaking our experience down into three steps: “What do we notice?”, “So, what does this mean?” and “Now, where do go from here?”. It takes inspiration from the Ladder of Inference by Chris Argyris, expert on learning in organizations. Below is an example of this ladder (download a PDF here):

By doing this with others, we are encouraged to discover the gaps in our understanding by learning from their perspectives. Being a fairly simple structure, you can easily adapt it to suit the needs of the situation. And the more you do it, the more natural this structured approach to sense-making becomes.

In this post, we’ll share examples of how we’ve applied this structures within our Scrum training and various coaching engagements.

Uses in Scrum

‘What, So What, Now What’ is incredibly useful in complex environments where teams need to make sense of their work together. This makes it a very natural fit for Scrum:

  • As part of a Sprint Review to digest and make sense of what was delivered during the past Sprint and any feedback that was received, and decide on next steps together.
  • To reflect on a critical incident or a team conflict together with the people involved and/or impacted, either during a Sprint or during a Sprint Retrospective.
  • Together with developers, to determine what strategies to use for optimizing codebases or reducing technical debt.
  • As part of a Sprint Retrospective where members of a team are invited to reflect on how the team worked together and went about their Sprint.
  • To periodically reflect on how the organization is doing in their Agile journey. Invite teams and stakeholders and invite them to reflect on the process so far.

A team engaged in a ‘What, So What, Now What’ as part of their Retrospective. We gathered the output per round on post-its (partially visible on the glass wall behind the team). We used printed hand-outs of the Ladder of Inference to help the group navigate the rounds correctly.

Steps

The steps of this structure are detailed below. Although you should make sure to do all the rounds and (at least) start each round individually, you can be flexible with the timeboxes:

  1. Begin by introducing What, So What, Now What and select a situation or incident that the group will be reflecting upon (2 min). If necessary, distribute a printed copy of the Ladder of Inference and discuss it;

Round 1: What? (8 min)

  1. Invite people to individually consider what they noticed and/or what facts or observations stood out for them (2 min);
  2. Invite people to share their individual observations in small groups. Encourage people to stick to observations and facts, and not to jump to interpretations or conclusions. If this happens, invite people to ask: “How did you notice?” or “What did you observe that made you arrive at that idea?” (5 min);
  3. Invite the small groups to share and collect salient observations with the whole group (e.g. on a flip-chart or with stickies) (2 min);

Round 2: So What? (8 min)

  1. Invite people to individually reflect on the observations. Why are those observations important? What patterns do you see? What conclusions can we draw? (1 min);
  2. Invite people to share their interpretations and conclusions in small groups (5 min);
  3. Invite the small groups to share and collect salient patterns, conclusions and interpretations with the whole group (2 min);

Round 3: Now What? (8 min)

  1. Invite people to individually reflect on the previous round. What next steps make sense based on the conclusions? What should we invest in as a group based on what we know now? (1 min);
  2. Invite people to share next steps in small groups (5 min);
  3. Invite the small groups to share and collect salient next steps with the whole group (2 min);

Combinations

A single Liberating Structure may be helpful, but their true power becomes apparent when you combine them into strings. Here are some potential variations:

  • Begin with a UX Fishbowl to share relevant experiences around a particular topic or situation. Use ‘What, So What, Now What’ to digest what participants heard during the fishbowl and to identify next steps;
  • Follow-up with 1–2–4-ALL to dig deeper into potential solutions that emerge out of the ‘What, So What, Now What’;
  • Follow-up with Impromptu Networking to invite participants to share how/if they are going to contribute to the solutions that emerged;
  • Use Appreciative Interviews to share stories about a successful Scrum Team that you’ve been part of. Follow-up with W3 to determine the patterns, key conditions and next steps.

Tips

  • ‘What, So What, Now What’ often feels counter-intuitive at first. The more often you do it, the more natural it becomes;
  • Use a talking object to structure the interaction in small groups and to avoid drowning out voices. When only the person holding the object can talk, others can focus on active listening;
  • You can use a short version of ‘What, So What, Now What’ to debrief meetings;
  • We often bring a print-out of the ladder of inference to help participants structure their thinking, and avoid jumping up the ladder;
  • Use What, So What, Now What on experiences that are fresh. Don’t reflect on something that happened a while ago;

Closing

In this post, we explained the Liberating Structure, What, So What Now What, and how we use this structure within the context of Scrum. Give it a try! We’re always happy to hear your experiences or hear your suggestions.

If you’d like to know more about Liberating Structures or experience a large number of them first-hand, make sure to join our Immersion Workshop in Amsterdam (December 10 & 11) or one of the others taking place in Europe in that month. Or join the Dutch User Group to give and get help from other users.