Just Asking About Things That Matter: Necessary but not Sufficient

When people begin grasping the significance of Things That Matter, they often rush to pop the “what matters to you?” question to colleagues and counterparts. That’s a great start and it’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Fail to realize this, and you’ll waste the opportunity for change.

One of the great strengths of basing our Value Management approach on the “Things That Matter” is how intuitive and motivating that phrase is.

It’s common sense (who doesn’t want to be focused on what matters?), people just “get” what the phrase means, and all they need to get going is to think of literally anything that matters to their customers, their organization, or to them, personally.

Indeed, the combination of how “obvious” it is on the one hand, and how refreshingly new it is on the other – the very definition of a paradigm shift – only adds to the enthusiasm, and this often takes the form of “just ask the question!“.

In other words, whether one-on-one with colleagues or relationship counterparts, or in account meetings or workshops – even via some kind of survey – the takeaway can seem as simple as just asking something like “what matters to you in this relationship/project/initiative?“.

It’s then true that “just ask the question!” can be a great start – especially to familiarize people with the concept and to start indicating that there’s more to explore.

It’s also true that it’s usually better than not asking the question at all (I’ll explain that caveat in a bit).

But whilst “asking the question” is a necessary, even recommended, part of getting going with the Things That Matter – and whilst we absolutely want to emphasize the simplicity of the approach – it isn’t sufficient on its own.

And this is because you need to really consider how you’re asking the question, who you’re asking, and what – especially beyond any breezy conversation starter – you do next.

How you ask the question

Asking someone what matters to them is one of the most powerful and empathetic questions you can ask.

Since childhood, when something’s wrong or needs sorting out, we’ve been asked “what’s the matter?”, and so the question taps into something powerful and compelling for us to get things out onto the table.

It’s also the root of empathy and understanding – you’re showing that you care about what’s important to the other party, which usually goes hand in hand with being ready to do something about it – and it’s usually a refreshing change to the typical conversations we have in our internal and external relationships.

Just ask the question!” can therefore be a great way of getting going with the Things That Matter and Value Management.

Indeed, we often suggest it as a way of trying out the concept, familiarizing people with it, and introducing the idea that what you think matters isn’t the same as what others might think.

It can work really well as a conversation starter, for example, or as an exercise in a workshop, i.e. starting to introduce something new within existing approaches.

But not only can “just ask the question!” become the end in and of itself (something we’ll come back to later); it’s also easy to fall into the trap of thinking that “just ask the question!” will truly and fully surface what really matters.

And that’s because it’s actually quite a difficult question to answer – at least really effectively.

Grounding the subjective

To begin unpacking this, most people’s answers to the question “what matters” will:

  • Gravitate towards more familiar and “objective” Things That Matter – the stuff associated with their KPIs, etc.
  • Tend to be very high-level, e.g. broad values like “honesty“, or general aspirations like “quality of relationship“.

There’s nothing “wrong” with that: there are many “objective” things that matter, and high-level articulations are the way into grounding priorities into specifics.

However, the point is that “just ask the question!” doesn’t readily get the subjective Things That Matter out into the open (which are often the most important ones); nor does it help flesh out what high-level answers to the question mean in practice.

People need to understand that “what matters” will often primarily be around intangibles, judgments, perceptions and emotions, and they may even need to be given “permission” to explore areas that are “vague”:

  • Such areas aren’t typically in view when “managing” the day-to-day: they will be unfamiliar to most people.
  • People are likely used to focusing on specifically actionable things, so may not see the point.
  • They may even be reluctant to share what could be seen as criticisms or “complaints”.

In terms of then “developing” their answers, “honesty“, for example, is a great thing in all circumstances… but that means it’s pretty difficult to “do” anything with: it therefore needs to be established how and where “honesty” needs to be manifested, specifically.

So, yes, it’s great that “Things That Matter” appeals to intuition, but “just ask the question!” – whether done directly or via a survey – therefore needs more nuance to get past these “blocks”.

And that involves a mixture of content and process.

Content and process

With content, we’ve found you generally need a more “creative” way to surface this stuff, and that provides two of the reasons we usually use the Symptoms of What’s Not Working Diagnostic to get started:

  • It focuses on symptoms of issues, rather than the issues themselves, which takes people out of the issues to catalyze feedback from which to factor out what matters.
  • The symptoms themselves are refreshingly different: they’re disarmingly frank, and because they are what we’ve generally observed going on, they form a neutral mirror, rather than having the existing situation drive what’s being asked.

Any sense of “confrontation” is therefore dissolved, and the mental blocks we just mentioned are side-stepped.

With process, asking someone the direct question – whilst empathetic, as we’ve said – can also put people on the spot, leading to any combination of “mind goes blank” and “I can’t really tell them about that thing!” (which could be to avoid conflict, because the person asking the question isn’t “neutral”, or a combination of the two).

Someone then has to record the answers given, which creates work and introduces the potential to miss things, and it can be natural – especially in a workshop – to jump straight to identifying actions, which doesn’t allow for more considered thinking.

Related, people often need a bit of reflection and a “safe” place to give feedback to answer the question – neither of which is really available in direct conversations or workshops, etc – and whilst a survey can help with this, it won’t help with the content challenge.

(And there’s also the “survey fatigue” factor, which is why we use a diagnostic to clearly differentiate it from a survey.)

So, popping the question is necessary but not sufficient; how you ask it really matters, and that usually means adopting a new approach (not least to avoid only doing what you’ve always done).

Who you ask the question

A key part of that new approach is that it’s also really critical who you ask the question.

Again, I need to emphasize, it’s usually better to ask the question – even it you ask just one person – than to not ask it (I promise I really will come back to that caveat I mentioned soon…).

But asking one person – or even asking a group of people – isn’t sufficient, and there are two reasons why.

Gaining full understanding

The first is that you really need to understand the situation, and no one person or group of people is going to know or understand all the perspectives involved.

Indeed, experience shows that if you ask yourself what the Things That Matter are to your organization, and then which are the most important, you’ll likely get a very different answer when you ask a colleague – much less, in a relationship, someone from the other party.

What we usually find is at best unclear and varied answers – at worst, contradictory ones – and that often reflects a disconnect between leadership and the front line:

  • Strategic imperatives or corporate values are critical but often not that specific or directly actionable, so leaders can seem out of touch to those at the front line.
  • Meanwhile, leaders do often feel out of touch, because information flows down far faster than it flows up to them.

Both perspectives therefore have crucial Things That Matter that aren’t being properly communicated and understood to each other (and, again, we’re only talking internally so far; the situation is only compounded in a relationship).

To address this likely involves doing something new, and you therefore need to get as much input as possible.

Collective ownership

But the second reason why it’s not sufficient to “just ask the question!” of one person or a representative group is that you need to bring people with you – everyone needs to feel listened-to, and they need to take collective ownership of the situation.

Now, it’s maybe possible that one person or a group might completely surface everything that matters in the situation – a minor miracle, perhaps, but maybe possible – and there’d then hopefully be at least some overall improvement in morale if people were to see a change in approach and focus.

But let’s remember the disconnect we’ve just mentioned, as well as the natural human tendency to feel more motivated when you’ve got “skin in the game”…

…because anything that seems like it comes from “on high” or a “privileged” group (even if it collectively represents most or even all of the people involved) is going to run the risk of being “bolted on” and not “baked in”.

There’s simply no substitute or shortcut for giving everyone (or as close to it) the chance to contribute – away-from-the-negative, it can be presented as their chance to “finally” have their say (or forever hold their peace); towards-the-positive, it’s a chance to participate in the future.

In all cases, it’s showing everyone that their inputs are valuable, it demonstrates that they’re being listened-to, and it invites them to “own” and have a direct stake in what happens next.

So, again, popping the question is necessary but not sufficient; who you ask really matters.

What you do next

At this point, let’s return to surveys, because they seem like a viable way to “just ask the question!” and address much of what we’ve just seen – they allow for engagement at scale, they can give time for reflection, they can be anonymous, etc.

However, as well as the issues we already flagged with surveys in terms of how you ask the question, the main focus of surveys – getting answers – isn’t enough.

And that’s because what you do next with those answers is arguably the most important thing of all, at which point – having trailed it a couple of times now – it’s now time to discuss that caveat: why it’s only “usually” better to “just ask the question!” than to not ask it at all.

And that’s because – far too often, sadly – asking the question becomes an end in and of itself, whether that’s deliberate or accidental.

Going no further deliberately

Let’s deal with “deliberate” first, which is where people assume that simply surfacing the Things That Matter is all they need to do – either because they’re not aware that it is only the start of a process, or because they assume the situation will just naturally now improve (or both).

Now, there is, indeed, lots of inherent power in surfacing previously hidden or neglected Things That Matter, because the empathy I discussed earlier is a natural foundation for lots of great stuff:

  • Empathy can lead to understanding.
  • Understanding can lead to alignment on areas of shared focus and shared challenges, and conscious understanding and management of differences.
  • Alignment can lead to the natural emergence and flow of collaboration.
  • Collaboration can lead to trust (as people act congruently with the Things That Matter, and start to deliver on them).

But note that repeated word, “can”, because this doesn’t happen automatically or by accident.

Indeed, you need to actively cultivate, shepherd and harness this “chain”, otherwise the effects will at best dwindle and dilute on the way through; at worst, the chain will break before it really gets started.

In particular, the Things That Matter that have been surfaced need to be consciously communicated, shared, and – most of all – made measurable, in a way that introduces objectivity to the subjective, and that moves from emotion to action.

So, instead of “deliberately” treating the surfacing of Things That Matter as the end in and of itself, you need to commit to, and instead be “deliberate” about, the whole process – not just the surfacing stage.

Going no further accidentally

But we then encounter the “accidental” way in which “just ask the question!” ends up being as far as things get, and this is through failing to properly consider what’s involved in making a change (and the Things That Matter approach is most definitely a change, even if it harnesses much that’s familiar and intuitive!).

This failure can involve failing to consider one or both of two broad factors: how our organizations currently work, and what perspectives and roles need to come together to achieve and embed change.

How we currently work

With how we currently work, the kind of engagement we’ve seen is needed – as broad as possible – sets in motion bottom-up momentum, but our organizations largely function top-down.

Leaders therefore either need to already be supportive of the shift in approach, or they need to be rapidly won over, otherwise that momentum will peter out:

  • There won’t be the channels and pathways for the Things That Matter to rapidly reach “up” through the organization and then start to influence “down” its priorities and processes.
  • There will be “clash” between the new approach and the established structured ways of doing things: even in the best case, many of these existing methods and disciplines will have the weight of “habit” behind them; at worst, there will be vested interests that are threatened.

Sadly, we’ve all too often seen how the surfaced Things That Matter get “lost” in the familiar cycle of board meetings, the announcement of strategic plans, and the same-old-same-old when it comes to management: the usual KPIs, the usual managed risks, the usual deferral to the contract, and so on.

Understanding change

But this is then all part of the wider understanding needed of what’s involved in making a change, where clear definition and understanding of the roles that matter in change initiatives is fundamental to effective change management.

We’ve factored out ten specific roles, where one individual may combine several of them, and where not all are necessarily required throughout, but where we use that “structure” to:

  • Identify potential gaps and obstacles.
  • Help ensure accountability and clear lines of communication.
  • Allow for specialized focus.
  • Facilitate effective problem-solving and innovation.
  • Encourage a holistic approach to change.

The last point there is the crucial one: however you understand and “map” change in your organization, you need a considered and holistic approach.

That approach needs to be one that understands the change process, understands the different roles involved, and knows when they need to come to the fore.

And that’s because each role faces different challenges, contributes a different perspective and involves distinct skills: ignore or neglect this, and even if you really do intend to do something with the Things That Matter, you’ll almost certainly find that it doesn’t happen.

Without making progress in this way, people will then feel they’ve ended-up ignored, that nothing’s really changed, and “just ask the question!” was ultimately just “another” information-gathering exercise – presumably to tick a box for engaging with employees and stakeholders.

And that’s when it can end up better in many ways to not have asked the question at all…!

Yet again, popping the question is necessary but not sufficient; what you do next really matters.

Two things to stress before I finish:

  • Please don’t let what we’re saying here curb any enthusiasm: it’s great to want to “just ask the question!”, and it’s a great way to get started. The only thing we want you to pause on is the word “just”!
  • Equally don’t make the mistake of feeling that it all sounded so easy and now it all seems difficult and involved again: the process of how to ask the question, who to ask, and what to do next really is natural and simple!

In summary: do pop the question, but remember that:

  • Whilst that’s a necessary thing to do, it’s not sufficient.
  • The good news is that what is sufficient is all clear, all known, all intuitive, and all ready for you to put into practice: Value Management.

Ready to get started?!