Monday, September 13, 2010

Transforming “WHAT ABOUT/SO WHAT” questions in to tug-of-war like “SO THAT” Strategies based Causal Chain.

Courtesy: Google Images

Over the weekend, I heard a message - that the number one reason most prayers go unanswered is because we fail to get the “SO THAT” (or motive /purpose) part correct within our hearts – instead, we end up spending too much time asking the “WHAT ABOUT/SO WHAT” type of questions - which kind of reminds me of the reason why most business strategies go unimplemented as well. As it turns out, most strategies end up being put on the shelves is because we fail to get the “SO THAT” (or purpose) part correct -and end up spending too much time answering the “WHAT ABOUT/SO WHAT” type of questions within the larger context of purpose-profit balanced equation. What do I mean by that? The purpose-profit balanced equation, in its essence is coming up with the right set of balanced strategy questions - with an end goal of formulating a purpose-profit balanced strategy causal chain ( The strategy causal chain - in my opinion – is the missing link- that is needed to transform the so called “WHAT ABOUT/SO WHAT” questions in to an outcome (or execution) based “SO THAT” strategies. In other words, strategy causal chain is the sequence of cause and effect based strategy actions leading up to the final effect (or outcome), where each element of the sequence causes its succeeding element with an execution focused action/answer.

A very important challenge of forming the strategy causal chain is arriving at the “good enough” length with a proper tension, similar to that of a tug-of-war chain – or arriving at the appropriate amount of time we must be spending on answering the follow-on “what about/so what” questions. If the chain is too short, strategic planning itself will become trivial and so does its sub-actions. On the other hand, as the chain lengthens- strategic planning slowly loses its momentum (& focus) and eventually do not get implemented. So, failure on both fronts can result in inaction -and so managing the length of the strategy causal chain (with a proper tension like a tug of war), perhaps is the most important part of the strategic planning process as it has a direct correlation to the business impact or outcome. The challenging part, though, is arriving at that optimum length (with a proper tension) – which by the way is decided by the way we go about answering the key strategy questions without falling in to the so called WHAT ABOUT and SO WHAT question traps.

Those of us who have gone through the large scale cross-functional strategic planning efforts would hopefully relate to this - while the early-stage hypothesis or ideas usually come with a great potential (and enthusiasm) from various quarters, they also come with their own share of uncertainties – partly, because of the lack of data to substantiate them. This is where – if one is not careful -the so called “what about and/or so what” questions can do more harm than benefit – and end up killing those early momentum/enthusiasms, especially within disruptive innovation initiatives.

· What about the market size? Are we sure that these ball park numbers are right?
· What about the competitive landscape? Is it possible to model the landscape to assess the impact of us entering that space?
· What about margin numbers? Are they realistic?
· What about the Profits? Has anyone done the profit pool analysis?
· What about the risk factors? Has anyone done proper risk model analysis?

While these are all valid follow-on questions, if we are not careful – sometimes these questions will never stop -and go in to an infinite loop of analysis/paralysis mode -and eventually bringing the whole strategic planning effort to its knees. Granted, the intentions of the questions are valid — but the problem, though, is what follows those "what about/so what" questions. The result from most of these questions- invariably- is to conduct further research and analysis which means delayed action or execution.

Don’t get me wrong - asking the follow-on “questions" by themselves are not bad as long as they are asked within the right context (& for the right type of problem we are trying to solve). It is a balancing act as asking the right questions within the right context is a skill only few folks are good at. To find that right balance, we need to first understand the human decision making process so that we can comprehend why some folks ask those diverging set of “what about/so what questions”.

By and large, depending upon the data or facts available to us (& risk tolerance level), we pick and choose one of the following decision making/problem solving methods. We tend to go from one side of the spectrum to the other side depending upon the amount of data available to us to make decisions.

1. “Shoot at the dot” method
2. “Connect the dots” method
3. “Hypothesis based” method
4. “Framework based” method
5. “Mathematical model” method
6. “Repeatable process” method

We usually settle down with the “shoot at the dot” or “connect the dots” methods when we try to solve a problem with less or no data at all. Interestingly enough, these two methods are more of ART type methods and folks with right brain thinking skills are usually good at arriving at the right decisions using these methods. “Hypothesis based” method is most commonly used within the Strategy problem solving space and in general we can arrive at a reasonably sound decision with this method. “Framework based” method is also common in strategy arena, but more widely used in the pure sciences. “Mathematical model” method is more common in applied sciences/engineering fields whereas repeatable process is used in life sensitive/R&D decision making situations. As we navigate across this spectrum, most of the disruptive innovation problems fall within the realm of methods #1 or #2 whereas traditional strategy problems fall within realm of #3 and #4 and scientific/R&D problems fall within the realm of #5 and #6. Rightfully so, the methods within this spectrum starts first with the “ART” characteristics and finally ends with the “SCIENCE” characteristics.

With this prelude- let us come back to the “what about questions” - which in general are diverging in nature (i.e. they create more options) and are typically asked by left brain thinkers whereas “so what” type questions are converging in nature (synthesis/insight focused and so eliminate options) and typically asked by right brain thinkers. The point is that both types of questions are asked with right intentions, but the problem is asking wrong set of diverging questions (e.g. “what about/so what” questions) for the wrong problem space and context (e.g. disruptive innovation) – which invariably will delay the execution – resulting in killing innovations in early stages.

This is where we need to step back – and work towards establishing the missing link – or the so called “good enough” strategy causal chain - which inherently will help us to ask the right set of balanced questions with an optimum amount of details - that is good enough to solve the current problem at hand instead of boiling the whole ocean. In other words, while answering the questions – one has to agree on the larger purpose or the so called “so that” root cause of the chain first before answering the “what about/so what” based effect part. The cause-effect relationship is key – i.e. identifying the root cause or the purpose part will eventually make the effect part to fall in place within the context of the purpose profit balanced strategy equation. Formulating the causal chain with the purpose (cause) part on one end -that is chained together to the profit (effect) part on the other end (like a tug of war as outlined in the top of the page)-is what that transforms “WHAT ABOUT /SO WHAT” questions in to “SO THAT” Strategy based Causal Chain.

Finally, let us face it- it is not worth to put those well thought out strategies on the shelf -and so it is time to step back and take a balanced approach when it comes to strategic planning – i.e. forming the strategy causal chain, which not only helps us to transform the “what about/so what” questions in to “so that” strategies, but also helps us to be purpose focused.


  1. Hi Charles,

    It is amazing how forgetful we humans are. Setting SMART Goals was extended later to SMARTER to accommodate E for excitement. We only get excited if we desire purposefully something. However; getting over-excited puts us off balance. Your post admirably handles the balancing needs between what about and so that questions.
    I have my concerns about the cause effect chain because we may not have linear relationship among them. The Butterfly Effect is a clear manifestation of this fact. Your post, Charles, point to delicate balances that may experience under certain conditions the Butterfly Effect,
    Charles, I congratulate you heartedly for this outstanding post.

  2. Thanks Ali for pointing out the shortfall of causal chains– i.e. its inability to establish linear cause-effect relationships in few non linear scenarios. Trust me – I was thinking of same point – i.e. adding the butterfly effect on a case by case basis. However, the more I thought about it - it might not only complicate the whole process, but might go against the message of the post given the purpose of this post is to simplify the strategic planning process with causal chains. By adding the butterfly effect – I thought that it might sound like an oxymoron – solving one complex challenge with another complex phenomena. But again, I agree that butterfly effect is the right way to represent the non linear nature of causal chains. Like everything else there is so silver bullet and so we need to apply the 80:20 rule I guess.

    However, point well noted - a great point from a great mind!


  3. Thanks Charles for a great, thorough and probing response.
    You raise a very legitimate point by pointing to the need of keeping things simple. But, as you know very well, that simplifying them may not make them simpler. It is like weighing a cat repeatedly does not make the cat heavier.
    Yes, we have the same paradox: that is balancing the opposites. The need to tell about what is to so that in a simple form so that we may keep the reader happy. The problem surfaces out when what is differs greatly from so that. We give money as incentives so that the workers do their utmost. Like you said, 80% of the time we might be correct. The problem complicates if we encounter the 20% scenario and the incentives do not work. The negative effects may escalate and have a much bigger effect than their low 20% probability. This is just to give one example.
    Do I have a solution? I wish I did.

    Charles, your response had a greater effect than so that I may get convinced. I could not stop myself writing again. A mi among the 20% minority? May be, but that is how the ball bounces.

  4. Appreciate the response Ali. Although today’s blog and the subsequent response has covered only the 80% strategy scenarios, I feel like that it has achieved the 100% of its intended mission – as it was able to generate a “SO THAT” response from you– which means I have achieved the purpose of me writing today’s blog.
    As always – as the saying goes – the best insights come from the 20% scenarios or the so called edges or peripheries and your response is a testament for that.

    As always – yet another well balanced constructive comment Ali.Let us keep it going!