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Tactical Problem Solving: Brown Cow Revisited

If you’ve ever read the fantastic book ‘Mastering the Requirements Process’ by James & Suzanne Robertson, you’ll be familiar with the ‘Brown Cow’ model.  If you’ve not read it, I’d highly recommend you get a copy, and in the meantime you might want to watch this short video which explains it.

The ‘brown cow’ model gets its name from English elocution lessons where well-to-do students were taught to annunciate correctly by repeating ‘how now, brown cow’.  When used in a business analysis context, it reminds us that we tend to start a situation with a “How Now” view, a current state.

The brown cow model has two dimensions: it separates the ‘real world’ from the ‘conceptual essence’ (how vs what) and it separates what’s happening now from what could happen (now vs future).   Although it isn’t designed to be used in a strict order, one way of navigating it when looking to understand problematic situations and solve them strategically is to look at the situation through all four of the brown cow ‘lenses’.  It is usually the ‘above the line thinking’, the redesigning of the work between the ‘what now’ and the ‘future what’ where the innovation really starts to take shape. See the diagram below:

Brown Cow Model. Four quadrants. How Now, What Now, Future What, Future How. From Robertson & Robertson (2013)

Let’s illustrate this with an example.  Let’s imagine a commercial customer has to physically sign a ‘work order’ for work to commence and this is causing delays and bottlenecks:

Brown Cow LensQuestions to ask includeExample
How NowHow do we do the work now? What technologies are involved?A work order is signed by the customer
What NowWhat is the ‘essence’ of the work?  How would we state this in technologically agnostic terms?The customer authorises the work 
Future WhatHow could the work be redesigned to be ‘better’ (what ‘better’ means will vary depending on the context)?Work is provisionally pre-authorised based on the customer’s pre-defined preferences, they only have to authorise exceptions
Future HowWhat technology will implement the ‘future what’?One possible option: A web portal where the customer can set preferences, payment limits and define exceptions

This is an excellent way of using the model, particularly when you extend the thinking further and engage in ‘double loop learning’ to question and refine the collective understanding of the problematical situation that you find yourself in.  However, sometimes we might need to solve things quickly and tactically in the meantime. Let’s explore an example.

Tactical Problem Solving: A Trip To The Pharmacy

I was recently in my local pharmacy, and I overheard a conversation at the counter.  A customer had brought in a prescription, and the cashier had taken it to the pharmacist.  A few minutes later the cashier came back and said:

“I’m really sorry, the doctor hasn’t signed and dated the prescription (script), which means it isn’t legally valid.  You’ll have to go back and get them to sign it”.

A short, polite but frustrated exchange followed.  It turns out the customer’s doctor was 30 mins away from where they lived, and getting an appointment during a pandemic is challenging at the best of times.

When I heard this conversation, my analysis antenna twitched.  I couldn’t help thinking there must be a better way.  My mind went immediately to Brown Cow, but using it (in this case) for tactical, single-loop (“first order”) problem solving.  Put differently, we can use it for short term firefighting, and then once the fire is put out, work out how to prevent future fires.   To do this initial tactical problem solving, we traverse the model in an inverted ‘V’ shape.  Let me explain with an example:

Brown Cow Model. Four quadrants. How Now, What Now, Future What, Future How. From Robertson & Robertson (2013)
Brown Cow LensQuestions to ask includeExample
How NowHow does it work now? What constraint is stopping it working now?We need a physical signature and date, and we don’t have one
What NowWhat is the ‘essence’ of the work? What does the physical ‘how’ represent?The signature represents the authorisation of a doctor that a particular patient should have certain medicine
(Immediate) Future How How can we achieve the essence differently, now, or in the immediate future to solve the problem?One possible option: Ring the doctor’s office on a known phone number.  Ask the receptionist to validate that the prescription (script) has been issued and/or speak to the doctor if needed to clarify

It Doesn’t End There

This doesn’t solve the root cause, it doesn’t re-define the work, so it is very much ‘single loop’, first order learning.  But, it does improve the customer experience and probably saves the doctor’s office time too.  (If the customer has to go back, they’ll have to ring, make an appointment, speak to the receptionist when they arrive, utilise more of the doctor’s time etc—perhaps a quick call could resolve all of this, and surely pharmacies have ways of contacting surgeries to validate prescriptions anyway if they think they might be forged?)

Of course, this is just an example and there may be good reasons why this proposed fix might not work in the real world, however it illustrates the point.  It’s also possible, once the ‘what now’ is stated in essential, non-technical terms to brainstorm other ways of tactically solving the problem.   

This might buy time and create space for a more strategic and longer-term discussion about how the root causes can be addressed or how the overall situation can be improved.  This would require a full use of the brown-cow model, alongside many other tools besides!

So, in summary, whilst it is crucial that we focus on longer-term, strategic thinking about problematical situations, we shouldn’t forget that there are stakeholders being affected now. The tools we use for understanding messy problems can also help us determine initial interventions that can make a difference. But we mustn’t lose sight of the bigger picture too. This ability to see the micro-level and macro-level, to swoop ‘up’ to the 10,000 feet view and then ‘down’ into the weeds and take people with us so that we can understand different perspectives is a crucial analysis skill.


Robertson, J. & Robertson, S. (2019). Business Analysis Agility. Boston, Addison-Wesley/Person Education  You can find this, and other interesting business analysis books on my Amazon Store

What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!

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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit

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6 thoughts on “Tactical Problem Solving: Brown Cow Revisited”

  1. Thank you Adrian. This model is exactly what I was looking for to help inform the next stages of development on a system we have just launched. Extremely timely & useful, I will be using it from Monday! I’ll also have a look at the book, which I haven’t yet read.

  2. Adrian,

    Thank you, I liked the article. A lot.

    I want tog back to your pharmacy example. Yu correctly point out that the essence of the problem, the “what”, is to get authorisation for the prescription. You say “the authorisation of a doctor”, but I would like to challenge that. The way that it happens at the moment is to have the doctor sign the prescription.

    However, I submit that the real essence is to prevent people having access to inappropriate medication.

    Once we have that essence, it opens up the field for other implementations. One of course is phoning the doctor and getting a verbal confirmation.

    But if as I suggest the essence is to prevent the patient having inappropriate medication, then the pharmacist herself can judge if the prescription is appropriate — “What are your symptoms?” “What did the doctor tell you about this medication?” and so on. It is well within the capabilities of qualified pharmacists to adjudge if medication is appropriate.

    Another “Future How” we could do this if we really need the doctor to authorise: Unless the medication is severe or potentially dangerous, it could be given to the patient and the authorisation gained later by email/phone. The patient must produce identification of course, but there is probably little harm in letting hm have the pills this once. Obviously this would be at the discretion of the pharmacist.

    My point in this rambling discourse is simple: The better there effort we spend to uncover the essence — the “what-now” or “future-what”, the more room we give ourselves to find better solutions. When projects rush to start building the first solution they think of, or the assumed solution, or the cliché solution, they are more likely to end up with the wrong solution. That is, it fails to solve the real problem. The real problem is found above the line that separates what from how.


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