Team Alignment in VUCA”O” Times: Try W3 x 124A (What, So What, Now What x 1-2-4-All)

The situation is volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, overwhelming (VUCA”O”). We have an immediate, mission critical challenge to tackle. We need team alignment, and as leader I am tempted to exercise strong command – I am thinking “Now’s not the time for democracy.” Afterall, when push comes to shove, a leader has to do what’s right, right?

Maybe, maybe not. Command perhaps yes, but control, probably not. It’s all about the context. Commanding can be a leadership style, but commanding only in the leader’s context is control. If it is in the team’s context, i.e. there is alignment and shared ownership of the why, how and what of the teamwork, the leader leads in the team’s context. If we can call this leading with alignment “commanding,” then it’s good commanding.

“But we don’t have time.” Really? Not even three hours?

One of my time tested go-to team alignment facilitation tool is a combination of two models from Liberating Structures, a hybrid of “What, So What, Now What?” or “W3” and “1-2-4-All.” It can be done in as little as in three hours, and in physcial, remote or hybrid workshop setting. Results are solid – I personally can’t recall an unsuccessful outcome from any of the team sessions I’ve faciliated with this combo. (I’m very sure one of these days I will have a bad day, but the point is, I believe this is one of those rare relatively low-risk yet high outcome, “Goldilocks” zone intervention formats).

W3: What, So What, Now What

W3 - What, So What, Now What?

The “What, So What, Now What” process is inspired from management scientist Chris Argyris’ “Ladder of Inference” model published in 1990 (“Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning“) and also featured in Peter Senge’s book “Fifth Discipline” as an application of Systems Thinking.

We’re quick to make decisions and often hasty to jump to conclusions without full consideration of facts and factors. Argyris’ point is that we need a reflective and prudent reasoning process for decision making.

Marty Neumeir, Know Do to Know Design Do

The exercise construct is simple. Basically you ask “what,” “so what,” and “now what” questions in three iterations. The key is how those questions are asked and discussions are fostered.

A team that is used to critical thinking will catch on with the exercise, and without much facilitation they will jump into animated discussion. So in this case divergence is not so much of a problem, and the facilitator’s focus would most likely be on the convergence process. Use time-boxing well, and encourage participants to build on each other’s opiniton so that they can naturally start converging on points.

Meanwhile, most teams are not conscious of critical thinking as a skill, so use this as an opportunity to raise the awarness of this ability to engage in independent and reflective thinking.

Critical Thinking

The first step is the “what” questions. If you feel like being audatious, perhaps you can start by asking the most ambiguous question “What “what” questions would you like to ask to yourselves, to ourselves?” You’ll probably get a whole bunch of “???” faces, but that’s the purpose – it’s a “mind opener” question. Otherwise suggest a whole variety of possible “what” questions to explore:

“What?”: What’s our reality? What’s our challenge? What’s the problem behind our challenge? What needs to change? What can be better? What do we do good that we can do more? What is our mission, vision, purpose? What are our values – do we live those values? What do we want to do?

The next step is to dig-in deeper with “So what?”:

“So what?”: So what does this mean? So what’s important about this? So why does this matter to us? So what will happen if we resolve this challenge – what does success look like? What will happen if we don’t tackle this challenge?

Essentially, the “So what?” questions are the “Why?”

The final step is a nudge for action: “Now what?”:

“Now what?”: Now what do we want to do? Now what can we do? Now what are we going to do? Now what are our first actions? Now what do we want to work on? What are the low hanging fruits that we can work on together? How are we going to do this together? Who can do what and how do we keep ourselves accountable? Now what do we commit to?

Essentially, the “Now what?” questions are the “How?”

Why How What

By the way, if you are familiar with Simon Sinek‘s Golder Circle, you may be drawing parallels and also thinking why we’re not starting from “why” as Sinek touts.

Actually, it’s the same exercise, just in a different sequence. Sinek’s model is in the sequence of “why, how, what” and W3 essentially goes as “what, why, how.”

Starting with the “why” is more provocative and has its effects. Meanwhile, “why” questions are tricky. If “why” questions are used for matter of fact things as in the Toyota Lean TQM “five whys” method (“Why did this steering wheel part break? Why did the ball bearings wear out? Why did…” and we keep on asking why until the root cause is identified), then no problem. But “why” questions in the human decision making context can sound accusationary, doubting and overly critical if not used in a psychologically safe way. “Why did you do that?” “Why aren’t we thinking alternatives?” “Why didn’t you see it coming?”

So perhaps starting with “why” may not be the easiest for all. Maybe we can start from the more intuitive “what,” and then once we’re warmed up we can dig into the “why” and come out with concrete action ideas of “how.” That’s the spirit of W3.

1-2-4-All (124A)


In a preceding post (“Strategy Session Facilitation with Design Thinking & Liberating Structures“), I explained why brainstorming & group thinking is notoriously ineffective:

Why brainstorming doesn’t work

That was fun, but… Why do we get that slight, lingering feeling of doubt and dissatisfaction after brainstorming sessions?

Here’s why:

  • Group dynamics: 80/20 rule applies.
    • Domination: The vocal minority dominate the space, crowding out the voices of the rest.
    • Judgment and hesitation: Our fear of being wrong and looking stupid makes us shut up.
    • Ideas evaporate: We can’t really listen and think at the same time, so our nascent ideas quickly dissipate while waiting for our turn to speak.
    • Social loafing: We become mentally lazy in groups – let others do the thinking!
  • Linear outcome: It’s so hard to do dissociated thinking (thinking of something separate – out of the box) during a group conversation.
    • Anchoring bias, recency bias: The vocal minority, often the leader of the group, speaks up first, and unintentionally sets the tone of the discussion which will carry to the end. And as we place priority to the last piece of information heard, we tend not to deviate from the chain of discussion, making the conclusion somewhat predictable.
    • False-consensus effect, bandwagon effect: We tend to think that others think like we do. So if the vocal minority hears no disagreement, they take that as an agreement. And if everyone seems to be agreeing, we tend to follow too.

Brainstorming doesn’t unleash the potential of the group, rather it makes each individual less creative.

Breaking this pattern of ineffective group thinking is easy: all we have to do is provide individual thinking and sharing space within a group discussion. For example, this could be in the form of everyone first placing sticky notes on a whiteboard (or an online whiteboard), a round robin sharing of thoughts, and then a talk out.

Yet, the effect of the vocal minority, social loafing, recency bias and bandwagon effect is so strong, it does take some good facilitation skills by the leader to bring out the best in everyone in a discussion.

This is where the Liberating Structures facilitation toolkit comes in, and among them, my favorite for addressing the shortcommings of group thinking is 1-2-4-All, because it uses the power of iteration.

Think Alone Together

Jake Knapp, author of the Design Sprint book, coined the term “Think alone, together” for alternative ways of group thinking. 1-2-4-All is one such way.

The first step of 1-2-4-All is a solo exercise where people write down their thoughts individually. It’s an important divergent process, where in the next step everyone is put into pairs to converge their thoughts with a partner. Thoughts and ideas are shared, similarity and differences are highlighted, and another round of divergent thinking naturally ensues from the pair discussion.

The pairs are next put together with another pair to form a group of four. Again, sharings of similarities and differences, and further discussion among the four. Diverge, converge, diverge.

Finally, the whole group comes together, and with the help of a facilitator or the leader as the facilitator, a representative from each group of four shares their group findings in the plenum. Likelihood is that by this stage, all important things that matters to everyone in the group is hashed out and externalized, making it easier to proceeds to a final group discussion for consensus building or alignment.

W3 x 124A on Mural (free template)

Link to W3 x 124A Mural template for free use under CC-BY-SA (please attibute to

Mural template preview:

Sample timeline for a typical 3 hour workshop

W3 124A 180 min sample timeline

In this standard 3 hour workshop setting, I suggest that What, So What, Now What is thought through and discussed in one sequence in each 1-2-4-All stages. So in the first stage of one, the facilitator instructs participants to individually first think of “what,” and then move on to “so what” and “now what” within the 20 minutes. Similarly, we ask the pairs in the two stage to think together and discuss the “what, so what, now what” within the 30 minutes.

An alternative will be to do three rounds of 1-2-4-All for each What, So What and Now What steps. However it will require more time as in the suggestion below for use in team offsites.

What, So What, Now What, Final Team Statement

A much appreciated side benefit of the workshop is this final artifact from the exercise. It is a wonderful record of shared understanding and agreement, and a memorable commitment for action by all participants.

What, So What, Now What, Final Team Statement template

W3 as a Team Offsite Exercise

If there is a luxury of doing What, So What, Now What as a one, two, or three day team offsite exercise, I recommend doing three rounds of 1-2-4-All for each What, So What and Now What steps. It would be a wonderful experience of deep refletion for the team.

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