The power of ‘so that?’

‘So’ and ‘that’ are two little words that pack a mighty punch. If you’re trying to bring about change or want to spend your time delivering more useful things then they can be your secret weapon.

Roses in guns - my kind of secret weapon!
Deploying your (peaceful) revolutionary secret weapon. Image by Shepard Fairey.

Over the years I’ve found myself using them in conversations with senior leaders, product managers, tech evangelists, school governors and even friends and family.  Usually this happens just after one of these has told me, with great conviction, about a thing that must be done, or written, or bought – to which I respond simply (and sometimes skeptically) ‘so that?’

I realise this might seem pretty annoying at first, but it’s amazing how it can lead to really useful conversations about what it is they actually want to achieve – the end and not the means.

It all started with a story

If you’re already familiar with using user stories to express needs to be met, then you’re probably already a fan of ‘so that’. I first learnt to express what I wanted to achieve in this format as a product manager working with agile (Scrum) delivery teams – but I’ve since realised it’s powerful in pretty much any context.

If you’re not yet familiar with the user story format, it goes like this:

As a [person]
I need [to achieve this goal]
So that [this outcome/benefit is realised]

So for example

As a home owner
I need to provide accurate readings of my electricity use
So that I only pay for what I’ve used

(This need used to be met by letting someone in to read the metre, then you could do it over the phone, then online, and now via a smart metre. The solution has changed over time, but the underlying need and ‘so that’ hasn’t).

Or even

As a finance director
I need to understand the benefits of your proposal
So that I can approve your budget

Creating more productive places to work

I spend a lot of my time now helping organisations figure out how to make the best of digital opportunities, and that often includes having to change how they approach things like approvals and reporting. It’s amazing how often I’m told “we have to fill in this template and send it to these people” or “we have to produce this report for this board”. These are exactly the sorts of statements that I meet with a simple ‘so that?’

What’s important is understanding the need that lies behind the task, so that you can work out if there’s a better way to meet it (or indeed if it needs meeting at all).

So, for example, if the need behind writing a report is that the senior management team need to see what progress you’ve made, so that they can continue to support your work… why not encourage them to come along to a regular ‘show & tell’ where they can hear direct from the team, rather then you and them having to invest time in a static report that’s out of date by the time it reaches them? Or if they can’t make it in person, why not film the session and share it with them, so they can catch up on your progress at a time that suits them?

Organisations are stuffed full of processes and habits that people follow because that’s just the way it is. These are the things that slow us down, sap our energy, and get in the way of change. They give the illusion of progress, because people are busy and forms are being filled in and meetings are happening… but are the right outcomes actually being achieved?

It’s all about people!

At the end of the day organisations, and their internal workings, are created and shaped by people. If we use user stories to understand the needs and motivations of our external users and customers, so that we can build things that they want to use, why don’t we also apply this same approach to our colleagues? Afterall – they are all people too, with needs and motivations… even finance directors!

The great thing about ‘so that?’ is that it doesn’t seem threatening or revolutionary. It’s just a very simple question that anyone can ask.

So next time you’re faced with someone suggesting or demanding something that doesn’t sound quite right to you, and you think they’ve jumped to a solution without explaining what it is they really want to achieve, I’d recommend deploying the ‘so that?’. You might be surprised by what it can achieve.

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