Home » The Best Way to Learn the Lesson

The Best Way to Learn the Lesson

David M. Bailey, one of my favorite inspirational artists, wrote a song called The Hard Way with powerful lyrics …

They say the hard way is the only way we ever learn a thing
After everything I’ve learned I’d say they’re right
Sometimes it takes a thief to steal inside your house
Before you learn to lock your doors at night

I love the song, but will respectfully disagree with his premise that the hard way is the only way. I will grant him that the lessons do seem to stick better the hard way.

Like I said yesterday, we learn best from our failures. But even then, not everyone learns from their mistakes. Not everyone learns from their trials. Not everyone learns from their accomplishments, either. The reason we don’t learn is that most of us don’t have a process in place for turning a mistake, trial, or accomplishment into a lesson.

When I lead team building activities, I build in time for what is called “processing”—drawing out the lesson from each activity. I was taught a powerful tool decades ago for doing this, a tool I use time and time again to help me (and others) learn the lessons. The tool is three short, simple questions.

  • What?
  • So what?
  • Now what?
This guy is actually one of the smartest guys I know. His First Order of Business is one of the greatest business tools I have ever seen!

What? asks us to process exactly what happened during an activity, the concrete actions, the recap, the successes and failures, mistakes and triumphs of the activity. What happened? What went well? What didn’t? What was the outcome?

So what? is the abstract to the concrete, questions to draw out the lessons from what we did. So what did we learn from what we did? So what made the difference? So what would have made things different?

Now what? is the application of the abstract, the application of the lessons to future activities. Now what are we going to do with this information? Now what will we try to do going forward? Now what will happen when you run into this scenario again?

Here is an example from the team building activity with the canoes


What happened? We got on the water and found out that some people didn’t know how to canoe.
What did you do next? Knowing we couldn’t talk, I paddled my canoe over to the other canoe and tried to show them the proper way to hold a paddle and make a stroke.
Did it work? Eventually, but they still struggled.
Why did they struggle? Because with the limited communication I couldn’t teach them how to steer.
What eventually happened? They got it together through trial and error, but it took us a lot longer than expected and set us way behind schedule.

So what? 

So what was the real problem? We didn’t check to make sure people knew how to canoe when we picked this plan.
What else? Since we made assumptions that everyone could canoe, we didn’t think about training anyone for the task.
What about the communication?  It was a lot harder to communicate without words than we thought it would be, especially trying to teach a new skill.
So what would have made this better? If we had asked everyone if they knew how to canoe before they got into the boats and on the water.
What else could you have done? We could have done training on dry land while we had full use of communication and before we had to launch.
So what would have been the outcome if you did that? We would have saved time and been more skilled at completing the task.

Now what?

Now what are you going to do going forward? Make sure everyone has the right skills to complete a task before we start.
Anything else? Include a skills assessment so that we know what skills everyone has and what skills we need to add to our training program.
How will that help you? We’ll know our strengths better and be able to plan activities that utilize the skills the team already has.
How will you apply the lesson of communication? Make sure that when we need to train, we do it when we have the time and full resources to do it properly rather than on the job when we are limited.

The hard way is a powerful teacher, but the best way to get lessons to stick no matter how hard or easy is through a solid process.

What? So what? Now what? is as solid of a process there is.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS You may have noticed that all my blogs have a postscript or two. Go back and read a few and you will find they are most often the Now what? to the lesson of the post. Now what are you going to do? Practice using this technique when training your new employees, when dealing with an employee who screws up, and when recapping your staff trainings and meetings. You’ll find the lessons stick much better.

PPS The order of the questions is important. If you don’t first establish what happened (What?), you cannot pull out the lessons (So what?). If you don’t fully understand the lessons then you cannot apply them to future activities (Now what?). If your group is struggling with either the second or third step of this process, go back and reestablish the previous step.

PPPS This works with parenting as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.