What are the essential questions that we need to ask? From an early age, we are taught that what we need to ask to get a complete understanding of a situation is “who” “what” “where” “when” “why” and, perhaps, “how.” These frame the essence of journalism, police investigation and some branches of research.
Yes, they’re important. They are not, however, the most important. There is one question that supersedes all of these. One interrogative that sets you back on your heels, and—if you are not prepared for it—has the power to completely undermine you.
And that question is this: “So what?”
It’s a challenging question. It can seem a hostile question. It is certainly a confrontational question. And it’s a question that you need to be ready for. In fact, you shouldn’t even wait for it to be asked. If you are truly doing your job well, you should be going for the jugular. That’s the question you should be starting with, not the question you should be dreading.
The very odd thing is, it’s the question we do dread. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we avoid it. We have a blind spot about it. And we continually, to our detriment, get blindsided by it at the most awkward and difficult of moments.
Speaking personally, I have a legion of examples I can offer of its importance as a question, and of instances where I’ve failed to adequately address it. And, to be clear, those failures are both proactive and reactive.
That’s an astonishing admission to make. I’ve been a management consultant for much of my adult life. I’ve been managing projects for much of my post-pubescent life. I like to consider myself pretty competent and capable in dealing with questions of strategy, complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. So it might be more than a little bit surprising that a simple question like “so what?” might be enough to derail me. And yet it can. In fact, it can do so very, very easily.
Part of the challenge is that “so what?”, for all of its theoretical simplicity, has a great deal of nuance embedded in it. It asks, “Why is this important?” “What does this do?” “What value does it offer?” And, perhaps most importantly, “What’s in it for me?” We lose sight of these questions at our peril.
The other—and perhaps more significant—challenge is that we often assume the answers to those questions are self-evident. That if we make a compelling, logical and rational presentation, our audience will immediately and completely extrapolate the implications of what it means for them. And that’s not to say that logic isn’t important. It’s not to imply that people don’t want to know that there has been rational and comprehensive analysis. But context-free facts do not seal the deal. Answering the essential question of “so what?” does.
As an example, I was recently preparing for a workshop with a customer. I’m working with them to develop a new methodology, and as part of that work I needed to take them through an exploration and discussion of what other models are out there. They needed to understand the variations that exist around the process they are trying to build and why those variances exist, and then to explore and discuss what makes the most sense for them.
Supporting this exercise required a great deal of research, not all of which was easily accomplished. Organizations don’t publish processes they feel are competitive or proprietary online. What is available is often abstract, high-level and generic. Over time, however, I was able to compile a representative collection of samples that made sense to review and discuss in the next workshop.
My initial intent had been simply to compile the models, present them and then facilitate a discussion of the differences that existed, and the implication of those difference for the customer organization. In fact, that was pretty much my going-in position until about 24 hours before the workshop. The evening prior, I recognized that I had a huge amount of data to work through, and pared back the number of models that we were going to review. I turned in for the night feeling pretty confident of where the next day was going to go.
That confidence lasted until about 4:00am, when my subconscious decided to put on its critical thinking hat and probe me about what exactly I thought I was doing. Specifically, the questions I awoke to were: “Why did you choose these models, and not some other ones?” “What are the dominant features of each model?” And, “What are the differences that make each model unique over the other ones we are discussing?” In other words, to put not too fine a point on it, “So what?”
The result was an earlier morning than I anticipated, more preparation than I had planned, and a workshop that went far better than I could have hoped for. Sure, I could have still gone into the discussion with the materials that I had prepared. I could have poked, prodded and guided the conversation to reveal the differences in what I was presenting to them. I could have forced them to work through the analysis and come up with the answers themselves.
At the same time, however, that wouldn’t have been fair or reasonable. I had already made an editing decision when I pared back on the number of models that I was presenting. On at least an implicit level, I was already differentiating and privileging some models at the expense of others. I was seeing features that were more relevant, useful or meaningful in one context, and advancing that forward while ignoring the features of another model. The challenge was in making those implications explicit and conscious.
That’s the issue at play. We often assume that the “so what?” question is obvious, implicit and self-evident. We forget that prior to the moment where we have a flash of insight and inspiration, we were struggling with the same perspective and insight as everyone else. We came to a realization, we integrated and assimilated it, and it took us somewhere new. What we need to remember to do is take everyone else along in our thinking process.
And that’s what the “so what?” question gives us. It’s a reminder that we don’t all always get the same things at the same time. That we can’t leave every exercise to the student to figure out. That the conclusions that we see are not going to be obvious to everyone else. And that if we really care about a conclusion or outcome, then we need to guide our audience in our thinking and help them to at least appreciate why we think our conclusion is the right one, even if they don’t ultimately agree.
Answering “so what?” is unquestionably difficult. It means we have to slow down and give some thought to what everyone else is taking on board, and how they are seeing a situation. We need to be able to empathize with their position, and see the world—or at least the problem at hand—from their perspective. We need to demonstrate that we understand their perspective. And we need to offer a solution that speaks to and resonates with their universe.
What is arguably most important to remember in all of this is that answering the question of “so what?” is not something to reserve for the most complex and difficult of scenarios. We need to be remembering it in everything that we do. For every paper that we write, presentation we deliver or deliverables that we produced, we should be able to make a clear and compelling case of why it was important. We should be able to clearly identify why the answers we are providing or the path we are recommending is most appropriate. And we should be able to clearly and compellingly speak to the value and practical relevance that solution represents. We need to lead with that, we need to reinforce it when presenting or discussing the details, and we need to remind people of it in our conclusions.
I recently completed some analysis for a client, trying to help address a relatively intractable organizational challenge. It’s one that has created many political difficulties as well as coordination issues between business units. It was work that I was particularly pleased with and proud to have done. In presenting the analysis and recommendations, the writing was clear and compelling, the solution was novel and relevant and all of it spoke directly to the world of the client. I just finished leading a discussion with the management team in the last few days, and there was really great engagement and enthusiasm from each participant. This was the kind of results that as a consultant I dream about. They don’t happen often, but when the do, they are amazing.
I needed to get the management team through the thinking process of how the problem was being experienced and what the analysis concluded to get them to understand why the recommendations made sense. That was the entire purpose of the discussion paper I wrote and the consultation that I led. They got it, they valued it, it resonated with them. It would be easy to walk away from that meeting being extremely happy. If I had done so, however, the client would have been left with a discussion paper and a memorable conversation. And valuable as both were, that wouldn’t have changed anything in the long term.
The most valuable conversation was the last fifteen minutes. The part of the conversation where I dug in and essentially said, “Great. We’re all in agreement, this makes sense to move forward with, and you can see how the structure and ideas will help. So let’s talk about how to turn this on and make it real. We need to address how we introduce and socialize these ideas broadly, and get them built into the thinking of how you move forward organizationally.” In other words, now that you’ve bought in, we need to tackle the “so what?” question for everyone else.
Stating the facts and hoping that everyone else figures out what they mean isn’t just foolhardy, it’s also dangerous. It’s why change doesn’t happen. It’s why good ideas that should make a difference instead whither and die. Creating change—creating effective change—is about helping people to see that they can be more successful in a new way of operating and working than they are today. And the only way we are going to do that is by addressing the two most important words I know: “So what?”