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Can Repeating One Question Build an Innovative Culture? Yes, it can!

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

Innovative Culture through Inquiry

Can growing an innovative culture happen through asking one question, repeatedly? I have you thinking? I love questions! I know it's odd, but I do. For me, there's no greater compliment than to have someone respond with a pause, a nod, and a "good question". It lets me know that I have prompted them to dig deeper, to think about something they haven't considered, to set them on a path of possibilities. After all, that is what innovation is all about - unlocking opportunities that don't exist yet.

Like every challenge, it's essential to ask the right question. The wrong one will get you headed in the wrong direction. It comes down to focus. The right question will focus on your vision. The wrong one will focus you on your problem. Here's an example:

Wrong question: How do I solve (insert problem)?


Right question: How might I (insert vision)?

Successful innovation doesn't just solve a problem, it caste a vision for a better future. -Karen Zeigler

You may have heard the quote, "Where attention goes, energy flows." I don't know about you, but I want to work with fewer problems, not more. Of course, in crafting the vision, it is minus the problem and thus includes a resolution to the issue. I suppose this is why I am a design thinking consultant. Design thinking always starts with the vision question - how might we? And the process is universally applicable. From products to services to life, and yes even to creating an innovative culture. Even something as simple as this blog post.

Blogging from a vision question

Every blog I write starts with a question. Even this blog started with the question, "How can I help leaders create an innovative culture?" I didn't start with the problem, oh crap, I have to write another blog. Nope, I started with my vision - helping leaders create an innovative culture. In understanding it's a blog and not a full-blown leading by design project, I knew I needed something simple. So I let the question - how can leaders create an innovative culture simply and easily? - tumble around in my brain a bit. Then inspiration hit. I remembered something I had read about Sara Blakley, the founder of Spanx. Here's the quote:

"My dad used to ask my brother and me at the dinner table what we had failed at that week. I can remember coming home from school and saying, 'Dad, I tried out for this and I was horrible!' and he would high-five me and say, 'Way to go!' If I didn't have something that I had failed at, he actually would be disappointed." This dinner table tradition allowed me to see the value in failure. "My dad always encouraged me to fail, and because of this, he gave me the gift of retraining my thinking about failure," she explained. "Failure for me became about not trying, instead of the outcome."

The path of the simple question

This simple question (how have you failed?) regularly asked by her Dad put the trajectory of Sara's life onto a path of success. Sara has a long list of accomplishments that only begins to scratch the surface with:

  • 2012 Time magazine's "Time 100" annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world

  • At 41 she became the youngest woman to join FORBES' World's Billionaires list without help from a husband or an inheritance

  • Nominee for Innovator of the Year from the Shorty Awards

From selling fax machines for seven years at Danka (now Ricoh) to being a billionaire owner of Spanx is astonishing. But if you need convincing, this is a key to innovation, then feel free to do your research. Look into the failures of the greats of old - Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Telsa, and others. All because they embraced the question - how have I failed?

The wisdom behind failing often

From Sara and back throughout history, successful innovators have recognized that

Failure is courage turned upside down. - Karen Zeigler

When you attempt to grow, solve problems, develop innovations, or any creative endeavor, there will be failures. Failure meaning - things didn't go as planned. As if we control the universe. LOL The problem isn't that we have failed but that we have wallowed in the feeling of failure. Wrapped our identity in this feeling of failure. But failure is not our identity. And the sooner we can recognize that for ourselves and our teams, the sooner we can experience our innovative success.

When leaders become aware that they or their team members are attached to this feeling of failure, it's time to make a shift. Shift from the sense of failure and return to the feeling of courage that got you started. Cling to that feeling. Get curious about the direction that the failing is pointing you towards to be courageous again. Remind yourself and your team that failure is just courage turned upside down. Turn yourself right side up and keep moving forward.

The process of questioning failure

So back to my question - how can leaders grow innovative cultures? They do so by repeatedly asking a straightforward question:

How have you failed?

In your weekly meetings, quarterly one-on-ones, or other interactions with your team ask as often as you can. How have you failed? Perhaps, like Sara's Dad, you even give out high fives. Or maybe create a courageous quarterly award. Nonetheless, help your employees recognize that ideas fail but it doesn't mean they failed. They are the brave person that took action in the first place. As Sara put it "the only real failure is the failure to try." Then guide them through uncovering the lessons of the defeat and follow up with how you can support them to returning to that courageous state of being. Helping your team fail faster not only builds an innovative culture and increases the odds of innovation success. It has the potential to do much more.

More great benefits of outing everyone's failure

  • Authentic connection: Authentic connections occur when we share real, honest, and heartfelt experiences from our life without judgment. By making asking, "how have you failed?" a 360 experience where everyone on the team can share, empathize and encourage, leaders open the doorway for authentic connections.

  • Vulnerability: According to Forbes, "Each of us has mirror neurons in our brains. It's these neurons that make behavior and emotion contagious. When we take a risk to share something personal, we send a signal to the other person that we trust them. Research shows that when we are willing to open up and show someone that we trust them, they become more trustworthy and open."

  • Psychological safety: This practice of allowing vulnerability and turning the negatives of failure into the positives of courage and possibility creates an environment of psychological safety. According to a two-year study by Google outlined in Harvard Business Review " the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety, the belief that you won't be punished when you make a mistake."

  • Positive emotional contagion: When we allow the release of failure's negative emotions, recognize the positive lessons found in the mistake, and ultimately remind and support each other in returning to the brave individual we are, we create positive emotional contagion. It is these positive "can do" emotions that will fuel you, your team, their performance, and ultimately innovation.

No better time than now.

Sound simple? It is. No need to embark on some expensive innovation project. Start right where you and your team are at. Asking how have you failed, in the beginning, doesn't even have to be about work. It can be trying a new recipe, a new hobby, or a new route to work. The goal is to start getting comfortable talking about failure and seeing that conversation as the win that it can be. Faster than you think, you'll find your team stepping outside their comfort zone more and more, seeing great individual success, team connection, and enterprise innovation.

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