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HSD’s Adaptive Action Cycle

As the busy fall season approaches, I find it helpful to refresh on some easy-to-use tools that are quick to put into action when things heat up in September. What? So What? Now What? is an analytic and reflective tool that is one of my go-to’s. I like it because it helps me slow down my thinking before jumping in with solutions.

What is this tool?

You’ve likely heard of this model – a 3 step process that asks the simple questions: What? So What? and Now What?

The model is built on ideas in a 1970 book called Reach, Touch and Teach by Terry Borton. Borton described 3 information processing functions (sensing, sense-making and acting) which he turned into the 3 familiar questions: what, so what, now what. 

Borton described the model as having 2 uses: analytic and contemplative. The questions have since been adapted by many authors.

So what: How to use it for analysis

Human Systems Dynamics founder Glenda Eoyang’s Adaptive Action Cycle uses the questions in an analytic way as part of a planning process when faced with sticky / wicked / intractable / complex issues.

  • In the What? phase information is gathered from the system to illuminate the dynamics of the current status. This is the sensing part of the process – identifying what’s happening.
  • In the So What? phase we identify and explore patterns of activity to develop a deeper understanding of conditions in the system and how those conditions impact the patterns. Here the system and its patterns are explored to make sense of the situation.
  • In the Now What? phase you choose an action that will shift patterns in the system towards a more adaptive state. It’s important to collect feedback about the impact of the action you take, and then return that information as as input for the next What phase.

For example, if you are concerned with low productivity in your team:

What have you noticed about productivity?
What do team members say about productivity?
What data do you have?
What’s working?
What’s not working?
How are team members affected by the productivity?
What productivity differences exist within the team?
What similarities exist within the team?
What do stakeholders say / notice?
Sense Making
So What?
What conditions in the larger system are impacting productivity?
What differences might be limiting productivity?
What might be holding the team in low productivity?
What patterns of communication or information flow are getting in the way of productivity?
What patterns are fostering productivity?
What surprises or puzzles you / the team about this issue?
What possible actions could be taken to shift the patterns that contribute to low productivity?
Now What?
What is one action that you / the team will take to improve productivity?
What will you measure or follow that will tell you the difference that this action makes on productivity?

There are likely many other questions that could be added – what comes to mind for you?

So what: How to use it for reflection

Similarly, you can use the what, so what, now what tool for reflection, to review or debrief an experience. 

What happened?
What did I do? How did I feel?
What did others do? How did others feel?
What was my role? What was the role of others?
What was I trying to achieve? What were others trying to achieve?
What did I do well?
What didn’t work so well?
What surprised me?
What skills did I use / not use in this situation?
Sense Making
So What?
What assumptions do I have about this experience?
What do I believe about what happened?
What interpretations / conclusions am I making about this experience?
What other interpretations / conclusions could also be made?
How does this experience link to any other ideas or concepts I know?
Where might I look for more information to help me understand / make sense of this experience?
What am I learning from this?
If I could do this over again, what would I do differently?
Now What?
What’s one thing I will do differently to improve how a similar situation in the future might unfold for all involved?
What will I watch for to see whether my new actions make a difference?
What key lessons learned will I share with others?

In each application, choose and modify the questions to help you gain more understanding of your issue and move to action.

Now what: Use the 3 questions this week

  1. As an analytic tool: Think of one issue that presents a planning challenge for you this week. Use the What, So What, Now What questions to explore the issue. Modify the questions to suit your issue. For best results, use the tool with your team. After using the tool, what difference did it make to use it for this issue?
  2. As a reflective tool: Think about an experience you had recently that was difficult. Use the What, So What, Now What questions to explore the experience more fully. What might you do differently if you encounter a similar issue in the future?

Now what: Where can I find more information?

Human Systems Dynamics Adaptive Action Model: https://www.hsdinstitute.org/resources/adaptive-action.html

As a facilitation design: http://www.liberatingstructures.com/9-what-so-what-now-what-w/

For reflection: U of G Library. (2018). What is critical reflection? Introducing the “What, So What, Now What” Model. [2:44]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGyjF9Ngd8Y

Image credit: Human Systems Dynamics Institute http://hsdinsititute.org

November 22, 2019
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