A powerful but elusive question


I’ve learned over the years just how valuable it can be for people to have a decent answer to that question, “What’s really going on?” Also how difficult it can be to find an answer (more about that in future stories), and how long people seem to be willing to keep trying things based only on what they think is going on.

So I sometimes host what I call a “What’s going on? session.” One that I remember well took place at a big food company, where the IT department had short bug lists—they were good at making software, but low adoption rates—people didn’t like or use what they made. At first they said, “We need to get better at requirements gathering.” But they didn’t have good answers to the question, “What’s really going on?”

So we had a good long day with a few people from different departments at different levels of responsibility, all together in front of a giant wall-sized whiteboard. We tried to make one picture that portrayed what’s going on. There was an org chart, there were some process sketches, there were dots and arrows and bubbles, and little drawings of microbes crawling around in between.

Finally someone took a blue marker and started labeling bubbles. “Us.” “Them.” “Us.” “Them.” Erasing the middle of arrows and turning them into broken bridges.

What was really going on? Among the various departments, including IT, only the directors were talking to each other. The regular staff almost never met.

I may never forget the transforming moment of realization. “It’s not that we’re bad at our job, it’s that we need to talk to each other!” That might seem obvious when you hear it, but it’s not obvious when you’re caught in the busy day-to-day.

ContextGlobal corporationGroup size8DurationOne dayOutcomeReframed a key problem for the IT department