Adaptive action

Features - State of the Industry Report

Learn the three most powerful questions to ask in business

November 5, 2013

It’s the Age of Uncertainty, and organizations everywhere are “stuck” in old habits that no longer work. But three questions can help you frame difficult problems and get moving in a positive direction.

Joe has always been a successful leader. But recently he’s found 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. What’s more, the tricks that have always helped him see what needs to be done and motivate his staff are failing him.

Focus and move forward
Forget five-year planning cycles: Even five-month planning cycles don’t work. The world is changing at the speed of thought. We need new perspectives and tools to meet those challenges.

So how can you focus your work and move forward in coherent and productive ways? Try 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.

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.

Question 1: What?

In the What? stage, those engaged in problem solving simply describe the current status, focusing on the challenge they need to address.

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 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. By describing the What? through the Adaptive Action lens, he was able to address a broader range of issues. 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.

  • What do I know for sure about what is communicated and how?
  • What patterns do I see in the ways people share, gather, and use information at individual, group, team levels?
  • 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 info or fallout from how communications happen now?
  • What data do I have about information flow; data use; and times, places, and situations when people don’t have the information they need?
  • What stories have I heard and from whom, recounting difficulties gathering info and/or getting people to respond?
  • What has changed over time, relative to this challenge?
  • What are the gaps in what I know about this challenge or seemingly related situations?

Question 2: So What?
In the So what? stage, people ask, “So what does all this mean?” Joe and his staff saw patterns of employees who expected to have information “spoon fed” to them and used “lack of communication” as a scapegoat to cover their own lack of performance. 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:

  • So what is the difference between what I/we want and what I/we have regarding 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/use/accountability?
  • So what are my options for action to shift how people seek, gather, generate and use the information?

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, 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.

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?

When you are able to understand a challenge from a new perspective, you have a better chance to figure out new ways to respond. 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.


Glenda Eoyang coauthored Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization (Stanford University Press, 2013) with Royce Holladay;