This reflective method will help you understand problems and discover better solutions.

What? So, What? Now, What? is a reflective model that helps teams evaluate a shared experience or a recent event so that they can identify ways to improve or act.

The exercise works on three phases:

  • Understanding the event (What?)
  • Making sense of the facts and implications (So, What?)
  • Identifying the course of action or new solutions (Now What?)

This reflective model was researched and developed by Rolfe et al. in 2001. It is also attributed to Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, the creators of Liberating Structures.

How to Facilitate the What, So What, Now What? Exercise

You can gather infinite numbers of groups. Each team should have 5-7 people.

Start with a simple issue for the team to familiarize themselves with this approach. Practice, practice, practice, and the team will incorporate this practice as something natural to address more complex problems.

The “What, So What, Now What” exercise has three stages. The progression reduces misunderstandings, drives alignment, and fuels the team toward a shared solution.

what so what now what

Using this structure, you start with the event (the ‘what?’), and then discuss the implications (the ‘so what?’), before brainstorming possible solutions or next steps (the ‘now what?’). 

What?

Let each person work on their own, capturing their thoughts on post-its. Give them 2 minutes.

Use the following questions to stimulate the process:

What is the problem or issue that we are facing?

What happened?

What did you notice?

What was everyone’s reaction to the event?

What positive and negative aspects do you observe?

Let each team consolidate the findings before sharing across groups. Capture all the key insights and information on a wall. Allow 3 minutes per group to share theirs.

Remind people to focus on facts, not interpretations.

So, What?

The purpose of the second phase is to focus on the impact of the event.

Use the following questions to encourage the analysis:

How does this event affect us? How does it affect our future?

Why is it important? What critical questions does this information cause us to ask?

What emotions does the event evoke? How does it make us feel?

What conclusions can we draw from this experience?

Once again, allow people to work on their own for 1-2 minutes before sharing with their teams.

Key hypotheses, insights, and conclusions from each group are shared with the larger team and captured on a wall.

What patterns or conclusions are emerging?

Now What?

The third phase is about moving forward: the team will work on possible courses of action.

Sometimes, the best way to move on is not necessarily implementing a new course. Upgrading their mindset or learning from an experience so that the team doesn’t repeat the same mistake is also a key benefit of this practice.

Let people capture their own ideas before sharing with their team. Allow 1 minute for individual brainstorming and then 5 minutes for the group to build ideas off of each other.

Finish the session with a discussion with the entire group. Cluster the ideas, vote, and decide what the next steps are.

Use the following questions to guide the brainstorm:

What do we need to do to move forward? How can we turn this event into something positive?

What have you learned? How will you use the insights that you discovered?

What will you do differently the next time? What will you do the same?

What hidden opportunities have this event uncovered? How can we use them for our benefit?

Facilitation Tips

Remind participants that they should learn to focus on addressing the facts and observations before jumping into action.

This method helps teams own their problems. It encourages curiosity and accountability–people learn to solve their issues without involving a manager.

Addressing the problem as a team helps neutralize blame and focus on moving forward. The method helps build a reflective rather than a reactive mindset.

Remind people to learn from their mistakes and course correct. Nothing is inherently bad if we can turn into something better.

Making sense of a problem is half the solution. Understanding the real problem will help find relevant and impactful solutions.

Coach people to approach problems with questions rather than answers. Questions are powerful because they invite active exploration.

Teams can incorporate the What, So What, Now What? exercise to team retrospective sessions or to wrap up a project or meeting.