“So what?” A problem solving tip

So I am laying in a ditch, in the rain, it’s two o’clock in the morning, I haven’t actually been to sleep yet and haven’t washed in a couple of days, there are practice mortar rounds being dropped around us, and someone’s yelling in my ear “SO WHAT?” I am miserable. The question is a good one though.

The question “so what?” is part of the Army’s way of teaching people to think. Every fact can have significance, but it needs to be uncovered. For instance when I was lying in that ditch, it wasn’t my wellbeing that was being inquired about. It was about the simulated mortars. Mortars don’t come into existence by themselves; they are carried by a mortar platoon.

Mortar platoons don’t run around by themselves, they are part of a company (around 100 men) and they also have a maximum range (which I’ve forgotten, but lets say 500 metres). The “so what” question makes me think along this chain of inference.

So mortars? It means I have at least 100 enemy soldiers within 500 metres, and that is probably not a good thing. In theory I need to move at least 500 metres away to get out of range of the mortars.

So what?

Well all too often I find that in my commercial dealings, the chain of inference just simply isn’t followed. Which means, to borrow a phrase, there’s information left on the table.

  • Customer X has cancelled his order. So what?
  • His requirements are down or he is buying off a competitor. So what?
  • There is an opportunity to help him improve his business or we have lost his loyalty and need to figure out why? So what?
  • So we need to meet and get an insight.
  • Let’s give Salesman A a payrise. So what?
  • Salesman B is sure to find out. So what?
  • Salesman B will then demand a pay rise. So what?
  • The pay rise will actually cost double what we thought and cause some tension.
  • Customer A is upset and is going to pull his business. So what?
  • Customer A is stressed because his business is going badly and we aren’t making it easy. So what?
  • Customer A is likely to go broke when his business fails. So what?
  • Customer A is likely to be a bad debt in the immediate future. So what?
  • Let’s not chase his business…

Next time a horrible fact is laid out at your feet in a meeting, try saying “so what?” You may be surprised where it takes you.

Source: Brendan Lewis (Smart Company e-Newsletter Wednesday, 23 July 2008)

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