When Leaders Get It Wrong: Part 3

In the movie, I, Robot, Detective Spooner is called to investigate an apparent suicide. The scene unfolds, of course in the lobby of a major robotics company. As expected, the company wants to avoid bad press while Spooner intends to find the truth. In this pivotal scene of the movie, the now-deceased individual has left a message for Spooner in the form of a hologram.

At one point, Spooner says to the hologram, “Is there something you want to say to me?”

The hologram responds with a generic, “You must ask the right question.”

Spooner then follows up with another question, “Why would you kill yourself?”

The hologram answers, “That detective, is the right question.”

Immediately after the hologram’s affirmation of the now right question, the hologram terminates. The significance here is profound in the plot of the movie and for us as leaders.

Many questions come to mind after a failure. Some are immediate, gut-level. Why did that not work? Whose fault is it? These can have some value, but they often leave us with nothing more than vague assumptions and negative attitudes.

Instead, I suggest that we move past our first layer of questions. For us to come to real answers about our failure, we need to ask the right kind of questions. The best questions tend to be more thoughtful and strategic. They are designed to dissect the failure and lead to deep conversations around purpose, structure, methodology, personnel, timelines, costs, communications, and any other nuts or bolts that could play a role in our recent experience.


Here is a list of questions that you may find useful.

What elements of our event went as we hoped or better? What message did these elements communicate to those who did attend?

Why would we consider this event a failure? Specifically, what did not happen that we were expecting would happen? How would what we hope to happen, fulfill the purpose of the event? How did our hopes and the actual purpose line up? How did they differ?

What pre-event strategies or operations could have helped us make this event align more with the intended purpose?

Is there anything pre-event, during, or post-event that distracted from the purpose?

Could we have communicated better?

Go around the room and ask every person this- if there was one thing we could have done differently what would it be? What is one thing you wouldn’t change?


The above questions are not intended to be an exhaustive list. I do believe they show you the intent of the questions.

These questions are designed to remove blame from the equation. We are not attempting to find individuals at fault. So often, when we ask questions, we ask the wrong questions. We ask out of anger or frustration. We ask out of insecurity. At times I think we even begin asking questions in some sad attempt to make the already concluded event, better. We must remember it is finished, and we cannot change the results of this year. We can, however, improve the results of future events.

Leaders must learn to ask questions that go beyond blame and guilt. We need to ask positive questions. We need to ask about form, structure, the process rather than questions of who or “why didn’t you.” Ask questions that inspire curiosity and conversation. Ask questions that lead the team to dream again.

I want a team of dreamers and doers, not a group of blamers. When we learn to ask the right sort of questions, then we change our future trajectory. We bring security to the team. We bring curiosity and wonder to the team. We bring unity and resilience to the team. Leaders learn to ask the right questions. Only when we learn to ask the right questions, will we be able to grow past the pain of failure into the joy of a healthy future.

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