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What? So What? Now What?

“…failure is not always bad. In organizational life it is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good. Second, learning from organizational failures is anything but straightforward. The attitudes and activities required to effectively detect and analyze failures are in short supply in most companies, and the need for context-specific learning strategies is underappreciated.”Amy Edmondson

Reflecting retrospectively can help teams reap learnings at each milestone. A retrospective is an opportunity for us to pause, zoom out, reflect on past actions, and draw out learnings so that we can carry those learnings forward in future decisions, actions, and processes within our teams. 

“One of the most important aspects of doing retrospectives well is to engage the entire team, the full set of stakeholders, in the conversation,” notes my colleague Andy Crissinger in this Wisdom for Work episode. Doing so, he adds, helps us form a systems representation of what’s happening, versus skewing the takeaways with only the perspective of one person or just a few people. 

Ultimately, retrospectives help us codify and carry forward learnings and build adaptivity into the team. They’re also really powerful resilience practices for teams. As a line of inquiry — What can we learn together? — it acknowledges that a team is a system of multiple parts such that when there’s a breakdown, it’s rarely attributable to just one individual. 

How can we better learn from experience with post-project reflection and retrospectives? In this episode, Andy walks us through a simple framework called: What? So What? Now What? This framework is useful in both successes and failures. It helps us discover, collectively, a shared perspective of what actually is happening or has happened, what learnings, patterns, and insights are emerging, and in light of all of that, what are the next best actions to take? 

The simple breakdown looks like this:


  • What happened? 
  • What did we each observe from where we stand?
  • How and why did this happen?
  • What were the results?

So What?

  • What is the meaning we are taking away from what happened? 
  • Why does it matter? 
  • What are the important learnings and insights to take away?

Now What?

  • What do we choose to do now? 
  • How do we incorporate what we’ve learned?
  • What action should or could be taken?

Sometimes failures come from things that are completely outside of our control, like the VUCA environment (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). Sometimes our good processes can’t withstand a VUCA environment, and we may get a bad outcome. That’s an opportunity to learn and increase our awareness of the system that we’re operating in. 

“It’s important as we think about retrospectives to also think carefully about our concept of failure,” Andy emphasizes, “Especially if we’re in the leader’s seat. How we frame failure goes a long way.” 

Amy Edmundson’s work encourages us to think with more nuance around failure. Destigmatizing failure for psychological safety is a key component of allowing these conversations to happen and shifting your organization’s relationship to failure. In The Fearless Organization by Amy Edmondson, she offers reframes on failure to destigmatize it. 

Through her corrective lens on the old notions of failure, we understand that:

  1. Failure is a natural by-product of experimentation. 
  2. Effective performers produce, learn from, and share the lessons from intelligent failure. 
  3. The goal in our work together is to promote fast learning. 

Because people are not trying to hide failures to protect themselves, the impact of this reframe is that teams dive into open discussion, there’s fast learning and more innovation. In her book, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Edmondson notes, “Teaming depends on honest, direct conversation between individuals, including asking questions, seeking feedback, and discussing errors.” 

Reflecting on Failure: 

Think of a recent example of “failure” that took place on your team.

  • What happened? What led to the “failure?” What was the cost? 
  • How did you respond as a leader? 
  • To what degree did the failure result in learning and growth for you and the team?
  • Would you say the experience left the team feeling more psychologically safe and aligned or less so?
  • What (if anything) would you do differently if you could?


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