Questions To Ask When Things Go Wrong

Murphy’s law states, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” If there is any truth to this saying, then a significant part of leadership is dealing with mistakes, mishaps, and even disaster. When things go wrong, our first reaction is usually to ask questions. While some questions are conducive in a crisis, some will only make matters worse.

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In any circumstance, the answers we get depend on the questions we ask. Ask the right question and you may get the solution you hoped for. Ask the wrong question and you will surely get the wrong answer. In other words, when things go don't as planned, the questions we ask may actually determine the outcome of our situation.


When problems arise, asking the wrong questions can actually push us to “negative territory” and further us from the solution. Here are two questions we should steer clear of:

  • Who is at fault? Playing the "blame game" will get us nowhere (unless a crime was committed and justice needs to be served).

  • Why did this happen? Asking why may uncover the reason things went wrong, but it does not necessarily help us find a solution to our problem.


Though some questions are counterproductive in finding a solution, there are questions which can lead you into positive resolutions, even if the crisis seems insurmountable.

  • How did I contribute? Taking responsibility for the issue will go a long way in helping correct it.

  • How did the issue happen? This is different than asking why, because it focuses on a process, which can be corrected.

  • How can the issue be fixed? If the mistake was not fatal, there is an opportunity for correction. We may have lost a battle, but we can still win the war.

  • What can we learn? Every failure can be a learning experience if we are willing to be taught.

  • How can we prevent this issue from happening again? Learning from our mistakes offers a tremendous growing experience which we can allow to shape our decision making for the future.


Now, look at these questions again. There are significant differences between good and bad questions.

  • Reactive vs. Proactive. Bad questions are typically reactive and defensive, while good questions are proactive and start positive dialogue, eventually resulting in a solution.

  • Outward vs. Inward. Bad questions point outward, whereas the right questions focus inward. It is easier to assign blame or an explanation to someone outside ourselves than to take responsibility for the failure and its correction.

  • Past vs. Future. Bad questions tend to focus on the past (the mistake or failure), whereas good questions point ahead to resolving the issue and preventing it from happening again.

The hard reality is, if you are a visionary leader, you and others will mess up. Murphy’s law is not absolute, but it often applies. The questions you ask may help you and your team overcome the adversity caused by the mistake. What are your default questions when things go wrong? What are the right questions you can commit to asking the next time you or someone else makes a mistake?