What, So What, Now What?

What is made possible? You can help groups reflect on a shared experience in a way that builds understanding and spurs coordinated action while avoiding unproductive conflict. It is possible for every voice to be heard while simultaneously sifting for insights and shaping new direction. Progressing in stages makes this practical—from collecting facts about What Happened to making sense of these facts with So What and finally to what actions logically follow with Now What. The shared progression eliminates most of the misunderstandings that otherwise fuel disagreements about what to do. Voila!

Five Structural Elements – Min Specs

1. Structuring Invitation

  • After a shared experience, ask, “WHAT? What happened? What did you notice, what facts or observations stood out?” Then, after all the salient observations have been collected, ask, “SO WHAT? Why is that important? What patterns or conclusions are emerging? What hypotheses can you make?” Then, after the sense making is over, ask, “NOW WHAT? What actions make sense?”

2. How Space Is Arranged and Materials Needed

  • Unlimited number of groups
  • Chairs for people to sit in small groups of 5-7; small tables are optional
  • Paper to make lists
  • Flip chart may be needed with a large group to collect answers
  • Talking object * (optional)

3. How Participation Is Distributed

  • Everyone is included
  • Everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute at each table
  • Small groups are more likely to give voice to everyone if one person facilitates and keeps everybody working on one question at a time

4. How Groups Are Configured

  • Individuals
  • Groups of 5-7
  • Whole group
  • Groups can be established teams or mixed groups

5. Sequence of Steps and Time Allocation

  • If needed, describe the sequence of steps and show the Ladder of Inference (see below). If the group is 10–12 people or smaller, conduct the debrief with the whole group. Otherwise, break the group into small groups.
  • First stage: WHAT? Individuals work 1 min. alone on “What happened? What did you notice, what facts or observations stood out?” then 2–7 min. in small group. 3–8 min. total.
  • Salient facts from small groups are shared with the whole group and collected. 2–3 min.
  • If needed, remind participants about what is included in the SO WHAT? question.
  • Second stage: SO WHAT? People work 1 min alone on “Why is that important? What patterns or conclusions are emerging? What hypotheses can I/we make?” then 2–7 min. in small group. 3–8 min. total.
  • Salient patterns, hypotheses, and conclusions from small groups are shared with the whole group and collected. 2–5 min.
  • Third stage: NOW WHAT? Participants work 1 min. alone on “Now what? What actions make sense?” then 2–7 min. in small group. 3–8 min. total.
  • Actions are shared with the whole group, discussed, and collected. Additional insights are invited. 2–10 min.


WHY? Purposes

  • Build shared understanding of how people develop different perspectives, ideas, and rationales for actions and decisions
  • Make sure that learning is generated from shared experiences: no feedback = no learning
  • Avoid repeating the same mistakes or dysfunctions over and over
  • Avoid arguments about actions based on lack of clarity about facts or their interpretation
  • Eliminate the tendency to jump prematurely to action, leaving people behind
  • Get all the data and observations out on the table first thing for everyone to start on the same page
  • Honor the history and the novelty of what is unfolding
  • Build trust and reduce fear by learning together at each step of a shared experience
  • Make sense of complex challenges in a way that unleashes action
  • Experience how questions are more powerful than answers because they invite active exploration

Tips and Traps

  • Practice, practice, practice … then What, So What, Now What? will feel like breathing
  • Check with small groups to clarify appropriate answers to each question (some groups get confused about what fits in each category) and share examples of answers with the whole group if needed
  • When sharing with the whole group, collect one important answer at a time.  Don’t try to collect answers from each group or invite a long repetitive list from a single group.  Seek out unique anwsers that are full of meaning.
  • Intervene quickly and clearly when someone jumps up the Ladder of Inference
  • Don’t jump over the So What? stage too quickly.  It can be challenging for people to link observations directly to patterns.  It is the most difficult of the three Whats.  Use the Ladder of Inference as a reminder of the logical steps “up the ladder” from observations to action.
  • Appreciate candid feedback and recognize it
  • Build in time for the debrief—don’t trivialize it, don’t rush it
  • Make it the norm to debrief with W3, however quickly, at the end of everything

Riffs and Variations

  • Use a talking obect for each round.  It slows and deepens the productivity of W3
  • For the What? question, spend time sifting items that arise into three categories: facts with evidence, shared observations, feelings, and opinions
  • Add a What If? question between So What? and Now What?
  • For the So What? Question, sift items into patterns, conclusions, hypotheses/educated guesses, beliefs
  • Invite a small group of volunteers to debrief in front of the whole room.  People with strong reactions and diverse roles should be invited to join in.


  • For drawing out the history and meaning of the events prior to your gathering, start a meeting with 
  • For debriefing any meeting topic that generates complex or controversial responses
  • For groups with people who have strong opinions or individuals who dominate the conversation
  • For groups with people who have difficulty listening to others with different backgrounds
  • For use in place of a leader “telling” people what to think, what conclusions to draw, or what actions to take (often unintentionally)
  • As a standard discipline at the end of all meetings
  • Right after a shocking event
  • For providing feedback in academic settings (e.g., feedback from students to teachers), many thanks to Barish Golland.

Attribution: Liberating Structure developed by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless. Chris Argyris introduced the “Ladder of Inference” in Reasoning, Learning, and Action: Individual and Organizational (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982). Peter Senge popularized it in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York: Doubleday, 1990).

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