The One Question that Stops Innovation

The One Question that Stops Innovation


We have all heard the mantra – fail early and fail often. As we Nurture Growth in our teams, we say this to inspire innovation. Innovation requires divergent thinking, taking a risk and the possibility of failure or a false start. How we respond to a failure or false start sets the culture toward stagnation or innovation. The key, to the direction your team goes, is based on the first question we ask. Erroneously, many of us start with, “Why did we fail?”

The question of “Why” is a pragmatic go-to response. After all, we want to learn from our mistakes, so let’s understand the mistake so we can avoid that in the future. Unfortunately, our staff do not internalize this learning opportunity in the way we imagine. When any of us make a mistake, we feel bad and start second-guessing ourselves. As a leader, to pile on to the self-doubt just reinforces the negative experience of the failure. When we ask why they made the mistake, it causes our staff to use their creative energy to defend their failed effort. The discomfort of the failure holds the team back from taking risks in the future, to avoid failing and having to explain themselves again.

Since our goal is to learn from the mistake, not justify it, we need to rephrase the question. Based on this experience, what do you want to do next time to achieve a better result? “Next time” is the key phrase as this creates forethought (a mental action plan). With this question, your staff is utilizing their creative energy to develop a new path forward. While they may not be happy that they made a mistake, your focus on next time, lets them know it is OK to make a mistake. This is the way we reinforce the idea of challenging assumptions and taking risks, by trying new ways.

Root Cause and the “5 Why’s” (Six Sigma) are important aspects of many process improvement programs, and they do have a place. The “5 Why’s” is a strong process to get to the root cause of a problem. They’re just not the first questions you want to ask when your team just failed. We want to create the path forward before we focus looking back. If you find the problem or mistake is a pattern of failure, you want to address it as a pattern and then utilize the “5 Why’s” to understand the root cause. Realize that not every mistake requires a root cause. Sometimes, they are anomalies and you just need to help redirect your staff to “the next time.”

To Nurture Growth and create a culture of innovation, you want to focus the conversation toward next time and create forethought in your team.