Direct Marketing Article
The Three Most Powerful Questions You Can Ask
in Business-and How They Can Get You Unstuck
By Glenda Eoyang
It's the Age of Uncertainty, and organizations everywhere are "stuck" in old
habits and old ways of thinking that no longer work.
Joe has always been a successful leader. But recently he's found that the
strategic planning system that once served him well is no longer working. He
used to be able to plan on a five-year cycle. Now, even one-year cycles are
too long. Regardless of his best-laid plans, other forces in the
organization keep overriding his strategies. What's more, the tricks that
have always helped him see what needs to be done and motivate his staff are
failing him. Joe is deeply frustrated. It seems so unfair-how can it be that
here, at the point in his career when he thought he knew everything he
needed to know about his job, each day is such a struggle?
Joe is hardly alone. According to Glenda Eoyang and Royce Holladay,
uncertainty and chaos are the "new normal"-and leaders everywhere are forced
to rethink the most basic aspects of their work.
"Forget five-year planning cycles: Even five-month planning cycles don't
work," asserts Eoyang, who along with coauthor Holladay wrote the new book
Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization. "Forget fixing the ‘root cause' of your challenges
in a world where diverse and multiple forces from innumerable sources
influence decisions you make and actions you take. Today's outcomes depend
on yesterday's actions and bring unexpected consequences tomorrow.
"The world is changing at the speed of thought, and it is beyond complex,"
she adds. "We have to find new perspectives and tools that help us meet
In the past, Eoyang explains, the world was stable enough to imagine
planning for a three-to-five-year horizon. Then, strategic planning often
brought people together to explore current realities and future
possibilities in shared work. It allowed them to identify measures and
activities that gave them a sense of control. But as yesterday's dreams
become tomorrow's "old hat," it's impossible to create strategies you can
count on; measures that will hold their meaning; or a stable, unchanging
picture of the future.
"What happens is, you try working harder," says Eoyang. "You try reading new
leadership books. You try the newest versions of old strategies. But nothing
works. You've hit the wall, and you see no options for action. You're
stuck...and that's a terrible feeling."
So how can we focus our work and move forward in coherent and productive
ways? Eoyang and Holladay offer Adaptive Action, an alternative that
provides quick feedback in cycles of observation, analysis, and action that
can be as short as a heartbeat, as long as a year, and span across a
lifetime. It's accessible enough that anyone in an organization can use it
to solve problems, plan for the future, and make more effective decisions as
they deal with day-to-day realities and uncertainties along the way.
Adaptive Action allows organizations to see and understand the patterns in
the challenges they face, design creative responses that move beyond just
treating the symptoms of those challenges, and, finally, act with courage,
knowing their actions are supported by insights about what is really going
on. At the heart of this process are three deceptively simple questions:
What? So what? Now what?
"These questions get people focused and thinking in ways that allow them to
break through their paralysis and take intelligent action," notes Eoyang.
"While the process of questioning and planning is natural and intuitive in
how we all think about change, Adaptive Action takes you beyond the first
level of seeing your system. It enables you to see deep into the dynamics of
decisions, interaction, and behavior to help you identify the most
productive and best-informed actions."
QUESTION 1: What?
In the What? stage, those engaged in problem solving simply describe current
reality. What's happening in the system? What's happening in the larger
world? What is being seen, felt, experienced? In this stage, people name and
describe, as thoroughly as they can, the current status, focusing on the
challenge they need to address.
The difference here lies in the need to go beyond what has always been seen
and described. People who engage in Adaptive Action have to see beyond the
surface descriptions and begin to explore the underlying patterns that
create their worlds. Here's an example:
Joe recently asked for help with communication in his department. In his
What? stage, he started by describing ways people did not have information
they needed and lots of disconnection across his department. Describing the
What? in this way, through his traditional lens, left him still frustrated
and confused, without any real options for action beyond what he was already
doing. On the other hand, by describing the What? through the Adaptive
Action lens, he was able to address a broader range of issues, knowing that
communications challenges were only one symptom of greater, systemic issues
he could address.
The following questions helped Joe and his staff use the What? stage to
explore these deeper dynamics of their interactions and communications with
their focus on the underlying patterns. The stem of the question is in bold
italics and would work for most situations.
• What do I know for sure about what is communicated and how?
• What patterns do I observe in part, whole, greater whole-in the ways
people share, gather, and use information at the individual, group, team
• What feelings or reactions do I see among staff as they share information
or learn new information?
• What lies on the horizon in terms of need to share information or in terms
of the fallout from how communications currently happen?
• What data do I have about information flow; data use; and times, places,
and situations where people say they don't have the information they need?
• What stories have I heard and from whom, recounting difficulties gathering
info and/or difficulties getting people to hear and respond?
• What has changed over time, relative to this challenge?
• What are the gaps in what I know about this challenge or seemingly related
QUESTION 2: So what?
In the So what? stage, people ask, "So what does all this mean?" They
explore the implications of their work, identifying current rationales, new
research, and emergent forces that may be shaping their world. They consider
risks and benefits that go along with the uncertainty of the situation and
explore the underlying dynamics of the challenges, using human systems
dynamics (HSD) tools to understand and to identify new options for action.
Joe and his staff collected information about the patterns that took them
deeper into the situation than they had looked before. When they began to
explore at a deeper level, what they saw were patterns of employees who
expected to have information "spoon fed" to them and used "lack of
communication" as a scapegoat anytime people felt they needed to cover their
own lack of performance. They saw examples of people not seeking information
they needed to save time in development or decision making. They knew there
might be many reasons for this phenomenon-general complacency, lack of
accountability, unclear expectations, for example-but they needed more
information to be able to make wise decisions about their next actions.
Questions asked at this phase might be:
• So what doesn't fit for me-for us-in terms of how people seek, use, and
share information, as opposed to what we expected to see? In terms of what
we need to have happening?
• So what is the difference between what I/we want and what I/we have when
it comes to sharing and using information?
• So what led us here? Might lead us out? How can we change expectations
about seeking and sharing information? How might we change how people step
into accountability for knowing what they need to know?
• So what constraints can I observe? What limits/supports effective
information flow? What limits/supports information use? What limits/supports
accountability for sharing information?
• So what are the most relevant
• Boundaries? Where information flows well? Where it gets blocked? Where
it's received? Where it's well used?
• Differences? In how people seek and send information? In how they use or
ignore information? In what information people want or use?
• Connections? That bring people together? That make meaning of the
information they have? That extend into other parts of the organization? To
the greater landscape? That are newer? That are older?
• So what are my options for action to shift how people seek, gather,
generate, and use the information that is available to them in the
QUESTION 3: Now what?
In the Now what? stage, people take action and then assess the impact on the
challenge at hand. Did the situation change? In what ways? What were the
unintended consequences that might have emerged? What's happening now? What
am I uncertain about now? If people pay attention, they find themselves back
to the next What? stage, describing the patterns as they stand after taking
action. That's the iterative nature of Adaptive Action-people always end up
at the start of another cycle.
Based on their new understandings about what was really happening in their
department, Joe and his staff began to find ways to reward and recognize
effective information flow. They clarified expectations about individual
responsibility for gathering and sharing data. They began to model in very
public and unambiguous ways what they wanted to see happen among all staff
members. And at each stage they took time to check the impact of their
actions. They looked for ways to adapt their plan and move toward greater
effectiveness, based on what they found about the continuously emerging and
Joe began to use this iterative, feedback-enriched method of planning to
move his department forward. Because they seek external information, they
are less likely to be surprised by shifts at the organizational level. They
are better able to incorporate new ideas and address emergent challenges.
More people are involved in their own Adaptive Actions and so are better
able to see how their work and innovations contribute to the progress of the
department and to the success of the organization as a whole. Joe has begun
to engage in Adaptive Action planning at all levels of his department and is
once again taking pride in the leadership he is able to provide those with
whom he works.
Here are the kinds of questions to ask at the Now what? phase:
• Now what will I do to help people share, gather, and use data and
information that informed their work?
• Now who might I include in action? Who can do what? Who is involved and
who needs to be involved?
• Now what will I expect to see as system change? What will be the behaviors
that will indicate change? What operational systems and functions might
change and in what ways?
• Now what unintended consequences might arise? What should I watch for as
people embrace or ignore the actions we take?
• Now what will mark success or failure? How will I know these actions are
or are not working? What will I see at the system level? What will I see
among my teams? What will I see different among individuals?
• Now what do I need to communicate to others? Who needs to know what about
these issues, challenges, and changes?
Joe and his staff-and so many others like him-came to recognize that
Adaptive Action offers new ways to think about the limitations in
traditional planning processes. First, it lets them name and explore the
uncertainty in their systems. Second, it promotes shorter cycles of action
and feedback, which allows players to respond to unexpected events and take
corrective action more quickly. Finally it allows people to see more deeply
into their challenges, which gives them more options for taking action to
change their worlds.
"When you are able to understand a challenge from a new perspective, you
have a better chance to figure out new ways to respond," says Eoyang.
"You're basically saying, ‘Okay, all of this uncertainty isn't bad. Nor is
it good. It just is...and here are a few simple questions that can help me
live with it.' There's something so liberating about making that shift-and
once you do, you're ready to move forward in ways that lead to sustainable
innovation and productivity."
About the Authors:
Dr. Glenda Eoyang and Royce Holladay are coauthors of
Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization (Stanford
University Press, 2013).
Glenda works with public and private organizations and communities to help
them thrive in the face of overwhelming complexity and uncertainty. She is a
pioneer in the field of human systems dynamics (HSD), which she founded.
Through Human Systems Dynamics Institute, Glenda helps others see patterns
in the chaos that surrounds them, understand the patterns in simple and
powerful ways, and take practical steps to shift chaos into order. She
shares her practical theories and theory-informed practices as she speaks
and teaches around the globe. She speaks about adaptive action wherever it
is needed: peace and justice, education, leadership, evaluation, public
policy, productivity, sustainability. Her clients include Fraser Health
Authority, Merrill Lynch, Cargill, McKnight Foundation, Prevention
Institute, social service and high-tech start-ups, as well as local, state,
and federal government agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
Royce is a leader among HSD Associates around the world who use Adaptive
Action in their work. She serves as a consultant and coach to help
individuals, groups, and organizations cope with uncertainty. Well grounded
in the theoretical foundations of HSD, she brings a practitioner's voice to
everyday applications. Royce's deep understanding of the dynamics of human
systems has been a springboard for the development of a number of models and
methods. She has worked with colleagues to address issues such as school
reform, inclusion and social justice, coherent system design, finding and
sustaining peaceful solutions, strategic adaptive action, and
self-reflection and growth through inquiry.