The Magic Interview Question: Have You Failed in Your Career?

Mar 14, 2013

Typical interview questions center on candidates’ successes. What have they done that makes them right for a position? What is their greatest strength? When have they succeeded?

These questions may aim to flesh out a skillset, work ethic, or propensity for learning. But, in reality, asking one magic question can actually provide you with much more information than any run-of-the-mill interview question ever could. The “failure” question not only gives you insight into a candidate’s work personality, but it also demonstrates her ability to keep your company relevant in the emerging information economy.

The Magic “Failure” Question

This vital question is actually a series of three. These questions should be asked toward the end of the interview, and only bring these into the conversation when a candidate has strong potential for landing the job.

  1. Tell me the last time you failed at something professionally. Everyone should have at least one failure they can recall. Most candidates will use this as an opportunity to externalize their failure as a result of someone or something that could not have been predicted. Pay attention to the way they identify the cause. Many are eager to describe what role others played in the failure, or how insurmountable the obstacles were. Look, instead, for candidates who accepted their part in a failure and turned it into something positive.
  2. What did you learn? This is arguably the most important part of the “failure” question. It provides insight into a candidate’s ability to turn failure into opportunity — and that’s vital for your company. For organizations to succeed today, we need more than just doers; we need thinkers who can use creativity and experimentation to build ideas and new models.
  3. Would you have done anything differently? The notion that people can be perfect in their vision and decision-making is dated and stuck within the management models of the industrial economy. The world of business is no longer linear. Disruptive technologies are being introduced so quickly that it’s no longer a question of, “Is your business flawed?” Rather, you should ask, “How long before your business becomes obsolete?” That’s why thinkers — people who are able to learn from failure and analyze the results of their actions — are so important. They’re able to understand their surroundings, identify their roles within the system, and think creatively to solve problems and improve processes.

Why Failure Is Important

Employees should be introspective enough to see the system and their own roles within it. As Daniel Pink noted in his 2006 book, “A Whole New Mind,” the thinking taught in schools and endorsed by businesses — linear, logical, and left-brained — was perfectly suited for the industrial economy, but not the information economy. Innovation has become king, and we need more than just industrial knowledge. We need right-brained creativity, empathy, and storytelling. To ensure your organization keeps innovating in this new age, use the “failure” question to find the following types of candidates:

  • Problem Solvers: The “failure” question shows whether or not a candidate has the intellectual capacity to break down and examine a problem. It’s crucial that everyone in the organization has this ability because waiting for others to solve our problems only creates bottlenecks.
  • Innovation Leaders: Most organizations can benefit from “new business” or “innovation development” teams that focus on long-term projects. But companies also need innovation to be a part of every person’s job responsibility. Everyone should be comfortable enough to “experiment” within roles, to occasionally fail at an idea, and share lessons learned.
  • Culture Evangelist: To stay relevant, your company has to be able to out-learn the competition. To make this a sustainable practice, you need your employees at every level to encourage risk-taking and to drive out the fears associated with failure.

Your organization’s culture will change as you begin to look for — and accept — failure in candidates from the start. New hires will find it easier to hit the ground running because they won’t be afraid to challenge assumptions or stretch their thinking, and they’ll begin to take calculated risks.

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