The Importance of Asking “So What?” When Looking for Solutions to Problems

Once you can clearly identify the root causes of a problem, you are now in a place to think about solutions.  But many companies think of solutions in a vacuum, without considering the actual impact and influence it may have on others outside of the problem.  That is why it is first important to identify consequences when you solve a problem.  These consequences may be with your business, team, customers, stakeholders, competitors, or the general market.

As I write, it is the morning before the playoff game between my beloved Kansas City Chiefs and the Indianapolis Colts.  Thoughts on my mind turn to football.  When a defensive coordinator sees the team is having problems guarding the tight end on the slant route in the middle of the field, he devises adjustments.  He also asks what adjustments the offense will make on the other side.  Will his changes make the offense able to run the ball better?  Will the wideouts be open for big plays? 

When devising solutions, it is important to ask the question “so what?” as you analyze possible results.  In my second banking job after college, I took over managing a branch of a savings and loan located in my home town.  Our branch was the smallest in terms of loans of all the eight branches of the company.  When I left that branch it was the second largest.  I knew and implemented strategies to make the branch grow but failed to see the negative impacts of my changes.

I replaced a branch manager who had retired after twenty years.  He had a long-time staff.  Changes I made helped us grow, but I failed to get the buy-in from the other long-time staffers.  I was young and arrogant and if I had asked the “so what?” question, I would have responded, “I don’t care, follow me since I have the answers!”  The resistance of the staff and counsel of leaders above me caused me to stop and rethink how to implement the growth strategies. 

Often the “what if?” questions need to go several layers deep to get to other changes that need to be made.  Mike Figliuolo, in his course on critical thinking gives the example of a company that identifies the root problem of needing to change the incentive plan which was broken.

So what?

We must change the incentive plan.

So what if you do that?

We don’t know how to do this.

So what do you do when you don’t know how to change it?

We need to find someone who knows how to do this.

So what does that mean?

We must find a new VP over compensation.

So what do you do?

We need to prioritize our search for a compensation VP and de-prioritize other recruiting efforts.

So what impact does this have?

Our search for a new supply chain VP will be delayed.

So what impact will that have?

Without a new supply chain VP, we will not be able to make the goals we have for our supply chain.  In this case it took seven “so what” questions to get to the basis that if we began to look for a new VP of compensation, we need to lower the supply chain goals we have for the year.  On the surface, these two items appear to be independent.  It took several “so what” questions to show how they are actually connected together.

In credit, you will often have clients who come to you who are in trouble who have think their only solution is for you to rescue them with another loan.  Sometimes, instead of running to open the vault for them, some “so what” questions need to be asked to determine the actual outcomes of their choices.  I once had this with a client who was made the final cut on a project with a large general contractor that he had tried to get in with for years.  The conversation started with the loan request.

So what if you get this project?

It is large and will be equal to 30% of our annual revenues.

So what sort of demands on resources do you think such a large project with short time demands will have on your business?

If we get this, we it will put us behind on other projects.

So what do you need to do to keep up with all your projects and add this one?

We must hire a new foreman for our other projects and put our most experienced one on this project.

So what will happen to the other project if you move your best foreman from it?

The project will not be run as efficiently.

So what does that mean?

It will probably cost us more time and we may not be able to utilize the relationships with suppliers and subs that our best foreman has in that community.

So what?

We will need to hire an additional foreman and some additional workers and must make extra efforts to build the relationships with our subs and suppliers in that community to keep that job profitable.  In this case the “so what” questions showed the impact in two unrelated jobs.  The contractor made adjustments to keep his existing job and made some pricing adjustments in his bid on the new one to keep his margins acceptable. 

A third example was with a full-service hotel which was remodeling to join a well-known chain.  The chain was only requiring the rooms and common areas to be redone.   The restaurants were already remodeled but the kitchen which served the restaurant was old and inefficient.  I knew of some of the problems with the kitchen with long delays in food service when I dined there.  We started with the loan request for remodel of the rooms. 

So what if you do not remodel the kitchen?

We can do that that at a later date.

So what will be the impact if you do all the other remodel now and then must shut down restaurants in the future to fix that problem?

It will be more convenient to do all the remodel of the hotel and kitchen at once.  To do these in pieces will look bad to our customers. 

So what if you do this now?

We will have to delay another project and focus more energy here.

So what if you do that?

We think the return is higher to spend more energy and money on the kitchen remodel now.

So what impact will the remodel have on your existing business?

We will have to shut down the restaurant at certain times in the remodel.

So how can you serve your customers?

We can go to a limited menu and use a food truck to feed the patrons during this time.  In this case the “so whats” helped the client change the timing of the kitchen remodel, delay another project which was not as profitable, save face in the community, avoid future grief by putting the remodel off, figure a logistic plan to manage the timing of various parts of the remodel, and keep the restaurants open during the kitchen makeover.  They also discovered the remodel built in huge efficiencies they did not have before, allowed the menu to be improved, and generated enough net profits to pay for itself in a few years. 

Asking “so what?” may help you see possible impacts with your solution on areas which are unrelated on the surface level.  Good critical thinking to solve problems requires a deep dive into the possible solutions and their impacts.