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How Would It Make You Feel?

30 October 2020

“What is the problem you are trying to solve?”

*Thunderbolt* *Dramatic Music* *Spine Tingles*

 “The best thing to do when things are complicated and you’re not sure which way to turn, is to ask the question… what is the problem you are trying to solve?”

I’m not sure if that follow up qualification sentence was precisely what was said but what I do remember word for word is…

“What is the problem that you are trying to solve?”

It burned into my brain as a genius way to help teams get to the root of the issue and to cut through the noise of broken systems and processes.

Mark Berdusco, an Australian Lean Lead first said this magic sentence to me in 2012 when I was in the middle of delivering a Lean Fundamentals course (developed in partnership with a number of Nestlé experts based at their HQ in Vevey, Switzerland) to their Asia Pacific team in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

It made me do a little shiver, the way that fundamentally important lean revelations tend to (tragically).

Practically every time I teach, a student will say something important that makes me think.  I’ll share my ideas and someone might then say ‘but what about?’ … I’ll pause for a moment ….  think .. and then in my mind mutter to myself… “yeah what about that?!” ……  cut to quizzical face, cut to me teaching and searching for a pen, cut to me scribbling down the idea illegibly on my lecture notes whilst not losing eye contact with the class.

I fundamentally believe in the power of teaching as a mechanism to teach the teacher things. I’ve had so many good ideas whilst in the process of trying to explain something to others, and I’ve learned so much from my students too.  Not enough emphasis is placed on the power of teaching as a knowledge creation device imho.  

Anyway, I can’t attend many meetings now where I don’t hear the ‘what is the problem we’re trying to solve’ phrase in some kind of form.  I know that I’ve repeated the phrase often in my teaching, so maybe I’m part of the reason for its proliferation, but now its everywhere and as genius as it is, it no longer makes me shiver, it makes me do a little sigh

How fickle you are Sarah Lethbridge, t’was a magic sentence when you said it and no one else had clicked with it, even though you yourself had stolen it from someone else.   

Oh to create my own phrase. I’ve tried to make my ‘elegant simplicity’ TM take off – success rate so far – one person has quoted the term back to me (whilst intelligently knowing that I really wanted them to say it, so I’m not sure that that really counts).

I feel like this next one might have business parlance legs – let’s see if it has the same kind of impact as the Berdusco revelation.

I believe that if enough people in power had have said this phrase when discussing the dilemma of issuing exam results with no exams and the welsh ban of unnecessary item shopping in supermarkets in the firebreak, the resultant public outcries could have been averted.

How would it make you feel?

In the exam result example, how would it make you feel if you didn’t have the opportunity to sit your exams because of the pandemic, that the only means of achieving a grade was to ask those who knew you best what grade they thought you’d get and then a nameless, distant authority applied a formula to change that grade and issued you a different grade instead? Even though you hadn’t sat anything? Even though mathematic moderation usually happens every year, this year, this unusual year, how would it make you feel if you knew that the best guess A was changed to a more mathematically correct C? Would you be ok with it?

You’re in lockdown, again, you can’t see your friends, wider family, you can’t go out and do things, so you go to the local supermarket to at least buy loads of chocolate and wine, how would it make you feel when you arrived and large parts of the store were cordoned off to you when you were just expecting to go to the supermarket as normal and suddenly even that experience was destroyed?

In both examples the authorities had absolutely the right intention behind their actions.  Moderation is an essential part of assuring a qualification standard and the Covid rates are rising so rapidly, the firebreak an opportunity to make a dent in its advance, so person to person contact needs to be eradicated, temptation removed. 

Yet I believe that asking the question ‘how would it make you feel?’ as a guiding force, as a leveller, as a means of connecting the work to the individuals that your decisions affect, is an exceptionally powerful device.

How would it make you feel?

Perhaps it’s even more powerful when prefixed with the ‘what is the problem you are trying to solve’ question… ?

In these desperate times, where decision makers are naturally, and rightly, driven primarily by the need to protect the public, to cope with the weight of what is in front of them, it would help to make sure that consideration of emotions and feelings are put up front and centre, to guide the public to accept the truth and to do the right thing.

Feelings can be so more powerful than sense.


  1. Mark Berdusco

    Hi Sarah, I am delighted to see you are writing amazing articles and helping bring some enlightenment to others in this COVID world. I am also pleased to see I had (even in a small way) helped in your journey of discovery and bringing relevance and meaning to others through “What problem are you trying to solve?”. I believe in our life’s journey that initially these problems are functional (like Maslow’s hierarchy) and ultimately we end up in the emotive space, where we do things to make others or ourselves feel good. Why not, it is much more fulfilling. I hope you continue to have an enjoyable and ever-rewarding career. Regards, Mark Berdusco

    • Sarah Lethbridge

      You had an impact in a big way Mark! Thanks for your teaching and kind words. Hope all is good with you!

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