Here’s a true story.

A colleague of mine stops off part-way through a long car journey to eat his sandwiches.

He notices two men working in the field next to the road.

One of them digs a hole and then moves on about four feet, and digs another hole.

The other man follows him and fills in the hole, then moves on to the next hole to fill…and so on.

After a while, my colleague gets out of the car and goes over to ask what they’re doing. He can’t work it out.

The first man says: “We’re working as a team. Normally there are three of us, but the guy who plants the trees – his van broke down so he’s not here today.”

Of course, it isn’t really a true story. I made it up. Or heard it from someone else. I’m not sure which.

But you see the point? It’s important to focus on the outcome, not the process.

In a big organisation, there’s always a tendency to become obsessed with how we’re doing something… instead of how much difference we’re making.

Colleagues who know me well, know that I’m almost obsessed with asking “so what?”

I call it the ‘so what?’ function.

As a chief executive, I think part of my role is to encourage a culture of relentless ‘so whating?’ within the organisation.

So that means looking at projects, services and products, and challenging colleagues with the question ‘so what? What difference has that made to our customers or the organisation?’

I’m not looking to crush people’s spirits.

I try to pitch it right and ask the question in a way that helps and encourages employees.

It’s not a folded-arms, furrowed-brow ‘so what?’

It’s a supportive, we’re in this together ‘so what?’

And it can help me and my colleagues develop a clearer, more objective view of projects, products and services…and their value to our customers.

Let me put it another way.

Think about football (the soccer kind). You have a team that plays with beautiful style, but can’t win a game.

It doesn’t pass the ‘so what?’ test. The team is pre-occupied with the process of getting the ball into the opponents’ net…instead of getting the ball into the net.

Not many football managers keep their jobs if they ignore the ‘so what?’ test.

However, I want to add a great big caveat here. I’m not saying the ‘how’ isn’t important.

Developing effective processes and the right behavioural values is hugely important (read my earlier post The Real Deal for more about this). But don’t mistake these things for outcomes.

Don’t mistake the means for the end.

five ideas for building a ‘so what?’ mind-set

so what graphic cropped

If you want to build a ‘so what?’ culture in an organisation, here are five ideas that might help:

  • Put the customer at the heart of your thinking.
  • Focus on outcomes (i.e. the difference you are making), not actions.
  • Use research, data and analytics to shape your ideas and predict what might pass the ‘so what?’ test (and what might fail).
  • Be brave. Stop strategies, plans, meetings and other process-tools being celebrated as progress.
  • Test what you’re doing from the customer perspective. Has it made a difference to them?

(If you liked this article, you might like some of my previous blog-posts about leadership and cultural change. Five Reasons to go Back to the Floor, for example.)