What’s one way in which we might catalyze and amplify the leadership in our organization?
Not just “big L” leadership (the leadership associated with position and role in the organization) but “leaderfulness” or “small l” leadership (leadership as an everywhere phenomenon)?
Today I’m drawing on two main sources, and working with one small piece of how the two together can help in this catalyzing and amplification of leadership:
- Liberating Structures, the repertoire of meeting microstructures that unleash participation, engagement and innovation.
- Evolvagility, Michael Hamman‘s deeply thoughtful book on growing an agile leadership culture.
What, So What, Now What?
The Liberating Structure What, So What, Now What is a reflective practice designed to create learning, shared understanding, and coordinated action. Agilists will recognize it as a form of retrospective. The structuring invitation (the questions that drive the activity) looks like this:
- 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?”
The Shared Sensemaking Conversation
The Shared Sensemaking Conversation is one of the deliberately developmental practices described in Evolvagility. The process goes through three phases, perhaps multiple times:
- Sensing: What are we seeing? What information do we have? What could we be missing? In what ways might we need to adjust our filters, and our modalities of sensing, so that we can see what we might be missing?
- Making Sense: What might this be telling us? About the organization? About us? About me (as a leader)? What’s confusing? What’s strange? What’s hard to take? What’s hard to understand? What in us makes it hard to understand? What does this confirm or disconfirm? What seems to be missing? As we continue, we begin to inquire into the Action Logics* that may be informing our way of making sense, and even our way of relating within this particular collective.
- Responding: What might we experiment with now?
Amplifying the Liberating Structure
We can already see that What, So What, Now What and the Shared Sensemaking Conversation share a similar structure, and that the What -> So What distinction already invites inquiry into our own sense-making. One way of framing So What could even include “What I make up about that is…”. My motivation for this article is the inquiry “How could we leverage the deliberately developmental aspect of Shared Sensemaking Conversations to amplify the developmental potential of What, So What, Now What?”. Below I’ll explore some aspects of doing this…
A Suitable Topic
In Evolvagility, Michael Hamman makes the point that a Shared Sensemaking Conversation needs a topic that meets several criteria so as to be effective in the developmental work. The topic should be:
- Disequilibriating – it must be somehow edgy or disconcerting
- Salient – it must truly matter to the participants
- Emotionally Engaging – it must be something the people care about
- Interpersonal – it must be something that requires collaboration to work through
Deliberately Developmental Framing
Going into a discussion with the shared understanding that we are here to not only address the outer work (events, processes, systems) but also the inner work (our developmental work) creates space for a much wider kind of conversation. Even better if we have some shared language or framework around what developmental work looks like, such as those of Action Inquiry, Leadership Agility, or Mastering Leadership (among many). Such shared language and framework makes it easier and less threatening to ask questions such as “what does this suggest about the action logic / reactive or creative mindset from which we / I am operating?”.
An Environment of Psychological Safety
Exploring our inner world – especially those areas where our thoughts and actions come from a place other than our aspirations or self-image – is an act of courage and vulnerability. Enabling such discussions requires an environment of trust, where it is safe to speak from a place of uncertainty, vulnerability, and learning.
Slow Down and Pay Attention
It is human and normal to leap directly to sense-making, not paying attention to the way our minds create stories from what we sense. Creating both the tactical value and developmental value of What, So What, Now What requires that we deliberately slow down and pay attention to this process of sense-making.
One Possible Implementation
Here’s one way that a revised What, So What, Now What could look like that explicitly includes and paves the way for the developmental work…
- Setting the stage
- Framing the context of the discussion, including the deliberately developmental / inner game aspect
- Reviewing topic suitability for developmental work (Disequilibriating, Salient, Emotionally Engaging and Interpersonal)
- Creating or reviewing the working agreements that help create the safe environment
- Inviting the slowing down and introspection of the additional sense-making questions that have been added to the What, So What, Now What framework.
- What happened? What did you notice? What facts or observations stood out? Include facts about our inner state (thoughts and feelings) as well as what was externally observable. What could we be missing? In what ways might we need to adjust our filters, and our modalities of sensing, so that we can see what we might be missing?
- SO WHAT?
- Why is that important? What patterns or conclusions are emerging? What hypotheses can we make? What might this be telling us? About the organization? About us? About me (as a leader)? What’s confusing? What’s strange? What’s hard to take? What’s hard to understand? What in us makes it hard to understand? What does this confirm or disconfirm? What seems to be missing? What assumptions or beliefs are we operating from? What does this suggest about the Action Logics from which we are making sense? How does this look different if we attempt to view it from different Action Logics?
- NOW WHAT?
- What actions make sense? What experiments would tell us more about the applicability of our assumptions and beliefs? What next steps might help us be more effective together and drive our development?
The Liberating Structure What, So What, Now What is already a powerful invitation to reflection and learning. The addition of a deliberately developmental context and expanded prompts can help take its developmental impact to a next level.
References and Further Reading
- Liberating Structures
- The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures – Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless
- The Liberators – a great team from whom to learn and be inspired to use the Liberating Structures.
- Evolvagility – Michael Hamman
- Action Inquiry – Bill Torbert
- Leadership Agility – William Joiner
- Mastering Leadership and the Leadership Circle Profile – Bob Anderson and Bill Adams