What, So what, Now what

Lightweight method to estimate mental effort to respond. (Edited, a lot) Method


When I am focused on something, disturbance is problematic. If someone asks me something, I need take a decision to lose my focus or to try to understand what they want. The key is to estimate before thinking of the response how much efforts would be required to perhaps respond. Questions with facts, interpretations, and needed actions are the lightest. If one category is missing, it costs more attention and impact my focus.


I discovered this during a retro moderated by an agile coach. The goal of the exercise is to fill 3 columns entitled “What, so what, now what”. Each of them is a step in an analytical approach to derive actions from what the team found relevant.

  • What: The observed facts. No opinion, no interpretation, just facts.
  • So, What: Here are the interpretations, the extrapolations, based on the facts put previously in the What. This is the sense we makes of facts.
  • Now, What: We know what is, what happened, and we have an interpretation on what is means, we can think of an action to take or a decision to make, if needed.

This is a very basic way to agree of a step-by-step analyze and actions.

So: facts, interpretations, and next steps. 3 different types of information.

So what

In general, at work, when someone reaches me it is because this person would like something from me. I find that understanding what is expected from me can be mentally expensive. This is annoying when I am already focused on something else. For me, the type of information the person provides gives a pretty good idea of how much effort I will have to deliver in order to respond to this person.

Let’s do over some examples and try to list all of what go through my mind:

  • “It’s raining”: is a fact. I can check, agree or not. Ask myself why this person is telling me this: what was the context of our last exchange? What is the next thing that was planned with this person? With this, I have way more questions than clues. I need to answer to some of them before knowing how to perhaps respond to what the person wants.
  • “It’s raining. We will be all wet”: Fact and its interpretation. OK, so this person has something with being soaked while going outside. Do I have something planned outside soon? Has this person something planned outside soon? Why does this person think that this information is valuable to me now? Should I think of an umbrella or a raincoat? I have more information, but what to do now?
  • “It’s raining. We will be all wet. I need an umbrella”: Fact, its interpretation, and the need. Where is the nearest umbrella? This is a no brainer.
  • “I need an umbrella”: Only the need. Where is the nearest umbrella? But why is it needed? Is it temporary or is it an umbrella to keep with the person in case of future rain? Here, I have less context. At least I know what to do but I have to trust the person that if I give my personal umbrella, they will give it back soon enough.

A fact has no meaning by itself. An interpretation add the context to the fact but it is still what a person is thinking, not what this person needs or wants. The trio Fact, interpretation and next step or needs, gives something which is really easy to digest. I don’t have to stop totally what I am doing to understand what is needed from me.

The same thing may happen also for the person I am exchanging with so I try to add the context to the need that I communicate. It is hard to find the right balance between adding some context to my request and keeping the message short to get to the point. Most of the time, people don’t notice. Nevertheless has the context, the logic, and the next step at once. They can only focus on my need if they prefer or tell me why I may be wrong and propose an other action or even interpretation of the reason I based my request on.

Now what

I also use this as filter for incoming communications. I find very cheap for me to find what kind of information are present in an incoming message.

  • A message with only one step (the What most of the times) is very expensive for me: I have to fully change of task, loose my focus, use my memory, check the sender and their team of to get more context, to be able to interpret, and get the point. It’s expensive. I look at those if they are an important area otherwise, it will wait for my next break at least.
  • A message containing two steps is way better but still needs some investment. Most of the time those mails are a big hope but may end with the question “And now, what?”. I look at those when I have some brain available or if this area is important to me.
  • I treat with priority the ones with the 3 steps. They are not free but they are the cheapest thus they have the best ratio effort/impact.

Last word: when writing if the What and the So What are long, consider announcing the Now what first in a “TL;DR”.