But Why? So What? Problem Definition using the Annoying Question Method.

Problem definition is the first and most vital step in any change process, investment proposal, business case or initiative planning. Despite this, it is often rushed or missed out entirely. Organisations who are considering a new project tend to think they understand their issues - in fact, they usually think they have the answer too!

However, experience tells us that problems are not always what they seem. The Investment Logic Mapping (ILM) process is one highly effective tool for having a structured conversation to figure out what key problems actually look like.

My Job: Ask Annoying Questions

The facilitator's task is to help the participants develop the most compelling, evidence-based case for investment they can. In simple terms, this means asking a series of annoying questions. At the problem definition stage, these can be broadly grouped into the following:

  1. But why?
  2. So what?
  3. How do you know that?
In this piece, I'm going to give an example of how the first two questions develop a deep understanding of issues. The third question relates to challenging assumptions and testing for an evidence-base, which deserves an article all of it's own!

1. But Why?

The first round of annoying questions. Official ILM terminology calls this the problem trajectory but it is simply being a persistent pain in the neck until we understand things better.

Here's an example of how I used 'but why' to more deeply understand a problem with an ILM group this week:

ILM group: The problem is about conflict between users, there's so much competition now.
Me: But why? What's the conflict about?
ILM group: There's not really enough space for everyone to do their thing anymore, people want to use the space differently.
Me: Who wants to use it differently? Why?
ILM group: Well, we have all these different cultures now, and they want to use it for different activities that just weren't around 10 years ago.
Me: Ah, so why are all these different people turning up?
ILM group: Because the community has changed, we have so much more diversity now.

.... BINGO. Our understanding of this problem just shifted from inter-user conflict, to how to respond to community diversity. This is extremely important, as the interventions we use to respond to conflict between groups are completely different to the intervention we might use to better respond to community diversity.

We're not done here, though. A good problem statement needs to capture both sides of the breakage - the cause, and the effect.

"The first round of annoying questions tend to be "but why?". Official ILM terminology calls this 'the problem trajectory' but it often manifests as simply being a persistent pain in the neck until we understand things better."

2. So What?

So what is a powerful tool for two important ILM stages - understanding the second part of the problem (the effect) and articulating the potential benefits of taking action.

To continue the above example, the discussion went a bit like this:

ILM group: Because the community has changed, we have so much more diversity now.
Me: So what is the impact of that?
ILM group: It changes what we need to offer, to accommodate these new groups.
Me: So what?
ILM group: Well, our current way of allocating and planning space doesn't do a good job of this at the moment
Me: So what?
ILM group: So the space isn't set up for them in a suitable way, when they want to use it
Me: So what?
ILM group: This excludes them from being able to access the space.

AHA! With an annoying round of 'so what's', we now understand the nature of our problem more deeply. Space planning does not accommodate diverse community requirements, which is excluding some groups from using the space.

No Really, So What?

Once a problem is clearly understood, it is important to discuss the potential benefits of intervention. In plain english: is this actually worth doing something about? This will establish whether you have a compelling case for investment or change.

Identifying benefits is an interesting process, because it requires some quite strategic thinking by participants - thinking about outcomes and value, rather than outputs and measures.

Extending the above example, the 'no really, so what' process went a bit like this:

So what if the spaces aren't fit for purpose?
ILM group: Well then it doesn't cater for all the people that want to use it
Me: So what? Why does that matter?
ILM group: That's unfair, because it favours some groups over others
Me: So what? What's the value in doing something about that?
ILM group: Because we want inclusive communities, we want to celebrate diversity.

... BINGO AGAIN! One of the benefits of intervention here is to create 'inclusive communities that celebrate diversity'. A much more compelling prospect for investment than 'catering to all users' or 'settling competition between groups', right?

By the end of a session like this, my participants are sometimes fairly annoyed with me (an occupational hazard), but they also have a much deeper understanding of the drivers for their current problems, and an initial understanding of how compelling the case for change is.