What? So what? Now what? – Powerful Reflective Practice To Boost Performance

Powerful Reflective Practice To Boost Performance

What? So what? Now what? – Powerful Reflective Practice To Boost Performance

In the spirit of this article — let’s cut straight to the chase…

People are busy.

When they look at content, whether it’s a blog post or an infographic, they want to know three things:

  • What? – What are you talking about?
  • So What? – Why should they care about it?
  • Now What? – What action should they take?

This is just one way that you can apply the “What? So What? Now What?” (WSWNW) approach. It helps you to move from a reactive mindset to a proactive one.

It’s a versatile tool that you can use for analysis and decision making, as well as reflecting on past performance and continuous improvement.

WSWNW helps you build informed decision making into every area of your organization and come up with creative solutions to common problems – as you’re about to find out.

What is the ‘What So What Now What’ Protocol?

The ‘What So What Now What’ protocol is a simple and effective reflective method.

Initially designed as a way to improve educational learning, it was quickly adopted in the analysis of clinical practice in the healthcare industry by Professor Gary Rolfe. Its value was quickly recognized and spread into other fields.

At its core, the protocol takes you through three progressive steps:

  1. What?  – Description
  2. So What? – Analysis
  3. Now What? – Action

Using these three simple questions, anyone can get deeper insights from their experiences or information. 

Who came up with the WSWNW model?

The "What? So What? Now What?" model is attributed to Dr. Graham Gibbs.  It's a core part of his Reflective Cycle, outlined in his 1988 book "Learning by Doing".

The Gibbs Reflective Cycle is a model designed to promote deeper learning and new ideas through regular reflection. It is widely used for learning and professional development in a variety of fields. Even if Gibbs didn't invent the exact WSWNW phrasing, his work greatly popularized this type of structured reflection.

How do you use the ‘What So What Now What’ template?

When it comes to reflective practice, it’s tempting to overcomplicate things. Honestly – there’s no need. The beauty of WSWNW is its simplicity. It helps teams evaluate their performance by guiding them through a series of steps or questions.

Here’s a template that will help you apply it to any situation or experience:

What? Start with the basics

  • Get specific. Outline the experience, project, or dataset in clear terms.
  • Stick to the facts. Leave your opinions and feelings out of it for now. Focus only on what can be observed.
  • Think like a reporter or detective: Your job in the 'What' stage is to gather raw info or data for your analysis.
  • Example questions: 
    • What were the key events or actions involved?
    • What did you directly see, hear, or do?
    • How did it compare to what you thought would happen?
    • What made this experience stand out - what parts felt challenging, exciting, or unexpected?
    • If you had to summarize this experience in one sentence, what would it be?

So what? Example reflection questions

This is where you dive deeper into the meaning behind your observations and start drawing insights. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • Significance: What's the significance of the info or data? For instance, do those sales figures reveal a hidden market opportunity? It can help to get multiple perspectives here, so don’t forget to involve all team members.
  • Impact: Be honest about both good and bad outcomes. What do they look like? How do they affect people or processes? What is the broader impact?
  • Connections: Does this situation or data relate to other trends, projects, or goals?
  • Ripple effect: Does a delay in one project signal a trend of scheduling problems across the board? Does correlation in one data set translate to others?
  • Example questions:
    • How might this experience impact you, your team, or your goals in the future?
    • How did this experience make you feel, and why?
    • Can you connect what happened to any broader patterns or lessons learned?
    • What does this reveal about your strengths or areas for development?
    • Did the experience change your perspective on anyone else involved?

H3: Now what? The action planning stage

Now it’s time to turn the insights into action. Make sure you consider the following:

  • Changes: Are there modifications you can make to help improve things?
  • Decisions: Let your analysis guide your choices.
  • Lessons learned: How can this experience inform your approach in the future? What are the key takeaways?
  • Example questions:
    • What information gaps still exist? How could you fill these gaps?
    • Are there challenges from this experience you need to proactively address?
    • Does this experience open up new possibilities for professional development?
    • Could the lessons you learned benefit your team, department, or wider community?

In the next section, we'll look at some examples of the WSWNW (what so what now what) protocol in action in a number of different scenarios.

When should I use What So What Now What? 

WSWNW is versatile. You can use it in pretty much any situation. 

And wherever you apply it – you’ll get deeper insights, enabling smarter decisions – especially when you’re making data-driven decisions.

Here are some areas that really benefit from a WSWNW approach.

  • Analyzing Data:  You've got a spreadsheet full of numbers or a series of graphs...but what does it all mean?
    • What? Describe the data. What trends or patterns do you see?
    • So What? Why do these patterns matter? What do they tell you? Is there a story behind the numbers?  
    • Now What? Use your insights to make a decision – e.g. modify your marketing, change your pricing, or direct your product development.
  • Designing Content: Before you hit 'publish' on a blog post or infographic, pause and apply the WSWNW approach…
    • What? Work out exactly what it is you’re trying to communicate to your audience.
    • So What? Why is this information valuable to them? How does it help them solve a problem or answer a question?
    • Now What? Adjust your content to make sure it’s relevant and clearly presented. Don’t forget to include a call to action – what the audience should do next, e.g. sign up for a trial or subscribe to your social media.
  • Problem Solving: Something isn't working the way it should. WSWNW to the rescue…
    • What? Describe the problem as clearly as possible.
    • So What? What are the consequences of this problem? How does it impact you or your business? Does it impact people, processes, or both?
    • Now What? Brainstorm solutions and set out some steps guided by your analysis.

Deeper Analysis: Using WSWNW to create engaging data visualizations

These days, if you want your charts and graphs to engage people, you must tell a story with the data. WSWNW can help.

What? (Uncover the core message)

  • Describe the data: Summarize the dataset contents (types of data, timeframe, source).
  • Initial observations: What stands out immediately? Are there obvious trends, outliers, or gaps?
  • Define your goal What's the ONE key message you want the visualization to convey?

So What? (Finding the meaning)

  • Why does this matter? Connect the data to business goals, user needs, or broader industry trends. Does this reveal an opportunity, a problem to address, or a misconception to debunk?
  • What are the implications? Think about the potential impact – good or bad – of the insights you're uncovering.
  • What's the story? Can you weave the data points into a narrative arc with a beginning, a turning point, and a conclusion?

Now What? (Designing for impact)

  • Visualization type: Which charts or graphs would best highlight the key takeaway? Consider bar charts for comparisons, line charts for trends over time, etc.
  • Focus and clarity: Remove clutter. What data elements can you eliminate without sacrificing the core message?
  • Guiding the eye: Use color, size, and labels strategically to draw attention to the most important information.
  • Context & annotations Provide necessary context (units, definitions) to ensure the story is correctly understood.

Example: Music Sales by Format

  • What? Sales figures of music products year by year between 1973 and 2020 – cassettes, CDs, downloads, etc. 
  • So What? Shows how the landscape of the music industry has changed over the years and how revenue has changed. The message is that streaming made the most revenue in 2020, but as a total CDs have made the most revenue over the past 47 years.
  • Now What? Use a bar chart race to compare revenue year by year, moving from 1973 to 2020. Then it flips to a bar chart showing total revenue, followed by a time series line graph to show the peak in CD sales around the year 2000. 

How to facilitate the What, So What, Now What approach in your business

WSWNW is a powerful technique and reflective tool to promote problem-solving across your entire team or organization. Here are some facilitation tips to encourage people to adopt it:

  • Start with training: Introduce the framework clearly.  Provide examples of how to apply it to common work scenarios (e.g., project post-mortems, customer feedback analysis). Promote the building of self awareness through reflective practice.
  • Embed it in processes: Build WSWNW questions into meeting agendas, project review templates, and decision-making documents. This makes reflection part of standard procedure, rather than an afterthought.
  • Make it collaborative:  Encourage team discussions using the approach. This brings in diverse perspectives and uncovers insights that might get missed with individual reflection alone.
  • Leadership buy-in is key: When leaders model reflective practice (e.g., walking through their own "What, So What, Now What"  during a project update), it signals how important it is to others.

How does the ‘What So What Now What’ Model differ from other reflective models?

There are other reflective approaches you can use, such as the STAR method. However, these are more complicated. The beauty of WSWNW is how simple it is. It cuts straight to the core of the issue with straightforward questions that anyone can answer. This makes it accessible to anyone, regardless of their past experiences with reflective practice.

WSWNW is also designed to help you turn insights into action steps. It helps you think about what to do next, not just mulling over what happened. 

For instance, if you’re using it to make data-driven decisions you can generate actionable insights from a mass of data. Firstly, you can describe the situation and raw data. Next, you look deeper into the data, using data visualizations – does the data reveal a potential problem or support a hunch you had? Finally, you can plan a new strategy based on the analysis and data insights.

This approach reduces bias, as you are dealing with the facts in front of you, rather than applying your own thinking and opinions. This means you avoid making decisions based on gut feeling alone and your choices are backed by data and a solid rationale.

Although the WSWNW is a powerful reflective model, that doesn’t mean you should neglect others. You can use it as a go-to tool for quick critical reflections or discussion starters, before moving on to the more structured approach of a STAR model, for instance.

What other reflective models are there?

Gibbs' Reflective Cycle (1988)  

This model offers a comprehensive, six-stage approach to self reflection (Description, Feelings, Evaluation, Analysis, Conclusion, Action Plan).  It's a favorite in education, where detailed analysis is essential for improvement.

Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle (1984) 

This model frames learning as a continuous cycle of Experience, Reflect, Think, and Act.  It's ideal for scenarios where the emphasis is on growth through hands-on experience.

Schön's Reflective Model (1980s)  

Schön highlights the critical difference between reflection-in-action (adapting your thinking during the experience itself) and reflection-on-action (analyzing what happened afterwards).  This makes it useful for professionals in fast-paced fields like teaching or healthcare, where quick decision-making is needed.

Borton's Developmental Model (1970) 

Many people see this as the foundation of the "What? So What? Now What?" approach, although it doesn’t use that exact wording. Its power lies in its simplicity and adaptability to almost any situation.

Other Noteworthy Models  

Several other models deserve mention, including: 

  • Johns' Model offers healthcare professionals a structured framework for self-understanding. 
  • Driscoll's Model expands on Borton's core questions for deeper clinical reflections. 
  • Atkins & Murphy's Model promotes deep critical thinking by focusing on challenging feelings and assumptions.  
  • Rolfe et al. Framework takes the classic "What, So What, Now What" questions and places them in a more academic context, emphasizing transformative learning.

Now What?

The What? So What? Now What? (WSWNW) protocol helps you move beyond surface-level descriptions to uncover deeper insights into experiences, data, or problems. 

Promoting it across your team will help people to make more informed decisions and arrive at better solutions based on solid analysis. For instance, you can use it to cut through the noise of large amounts of data and create data visualizations that tell a story.

As well as problem solving, it’s also a valuable tool for analyzing successes and learning from works well too.