How to Use the “What About” Technique


Focus is key to effective leadership

I use focus questions to bring attention to core elements of the strategic initiative. In this article, I describe one of my preferred focus questions. The question is,

“What are you concerned about?”

An example

I was invited to help a business turnaround for US-based company that was losing $20 million each year in its European manufacturing operations. The executives had set the strategic vision: close down select facilities but move the capability to other facilities. The VP of manufacturing reiterated the project’s strategic intent and then said, “Here is Greg Githens and he is going to help turn this initiative into an actionable plan.”

How to Create a “What About” List

I first ask the group to think about the focus questions, “What are you concerned about?” While I am asking that question, I am writing the words “What about….” at the top of a flip chart page.

Sometimes it is useful to allow a few minutes of quiet time for individuals to write down their responses.

I then give each participant the opportunity to state one concern (or say, “pass” if they want to skip their turn, for it will come again). As facilitator, I write their concern on the flip chart. If the participant is verbose or is struggling to get their thoughts, I tell them, “give me a few words that captures your concern and I will write it down.” This is important: I use their own words and not my interpretation.

It is important to allow each individual to speak and be heard. Also, I do not allow for discussion or rebuttal at this point. (This technique is actually a variant of nominal group technique.)

Then I move to the next person and repeat this question, “What are you concerned about?” and write the answers on the page. I keep things moving; people are not permitted to hijack the discussion with analysis, discussion, proposed solutions or rebuttals. This continues: giving each person an opportunity to state one concern at a time, until the people have exhausted their concerns. I also take a turn, stepping out of the facilitator role and into the participant’s role to add a comment.

It takes somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes to finish the what-about list. At this point, we will have several flip chart pages of concerns. I tape to the wall so everyone can see the scope of the collective concerns of the group. [Especially for long running-projects, people tend to loose sight of all of the key questions and drivers of success.]

Energizing the team

My goal is to get people to step up to the challenge of the strategic project. I point to the pages and tell them that their challenge is to collaborate and resolve these concerns. We will use our program and project disciplines for structure and energize the problem solving.

Sometimes (particularly when the project is in a crisis or turnaround mode), I adopt a “Dutch Uncle” persona for a moment, and give a frank and direct challenge: You own this initiative and need to do the tough work to make it successful.

Give them a R.A.D.I.O

I next help the team classify the long list of concerns. The following categories are helpful:

  • Risks – Uncertain events that can affect the initiative for good or bad. It should be stated as a description of the event and estimates of the probability and consequence.
  • Assumptions – A factor that is true, real, or certain for planning purposes
  • Decisions – An important decision that must be made by someone who needs information (often provided by someone else)
  • Issues – A problem is resolved with a decision and action
  • Opportunities – An event that – if realized – adds value. One distinctive feature of strategic initiatives and program management is the focus capturing opportunities as opposed to mitigating threats.

This is straightforward: Next to each item, with the team’s assistance – I simply write the letter R, A, D, I, or O as appropriate.

These many items are now in five separate buckets and ready for further action. The issues bucket is typically the largest of the five. As I describe in another article on issues management, the team develops an issues log and specifies the issue for effective resolution. (The other four buckets are each managed differently, as well.)

Why this works

Strategic initiatives are different from strategic projects in that they involve people with different perspectives. For example, many managers find themselves in a debate over which solution is the best solution, without realizing that there is no common understanding of the problem or root cause. This condition of ambiguity is important for the leader of the strategic initiative.

The “what about” technique allows people to come to the initiative with their own subjective framework, and helps the group come to a common mental model. Group dynamics are vital to success with strategic initiatives. This technique allows us to address the concerns of individuals who:

  • Think better in silence
  • Are less vocal, or are overwhelmed by other individuals who are more vocal
  • Are not inclined to participate or are easily distracted
  • Believe that there is controversy but would prefer to avoid direct confrontation
  • Have not spent much time thinking about the strategic initiative

It is easy to apply if you have some basic facilitation skills. It draws people out – even the quiet ones – and helps them to get a sense of their own interests, needs, and priorities. It establishes a better mindset for more sophisticated program and project management techniques.

How do you involve people who have anxieties and concerns? What do you see as advantages and disadvantages?

About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
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11 Responses to How to Use the “What About” Technique

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  7. Sally Jones says:

    This is a very good exercise. Greg actually used it with my team when he came to help us out a few years ago. Since then, I’ve adopted it and used it several times. It really does help to get conversation flowing and teams talking to each other in terms of what they are concerned about. Once communication is happening and the issues in “What ABout” are classified, it makes it a lot easier to determine a course forward!

    • Greg Githens says:

      Thanks for your endorsement, Sally. I’m glad you picked up and are using it. Frequently, people have problem’s saying what is really on their mind and this is an elegant technique that gives them permission to share their concerns. Once it is out in the open, problem solving is realitively easy!

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