Often when a project goes awry or a deadline is not met, I am regaled with long explanations of all the things that were done in an attempt to achieve the goal or meet the target date. While I greatly appreciate intelligent effort, in the final analysis it’s performance that counts.

So frequently I stop the verbal litany unfolding before me with a simple question: “What didn’t you do?”

In other words, instead of telling me all the things you did do (and that did not work), instead tell me what you didn’t do. The question is not intended as a “gotcha,” it is not a trick question, it is not supposed to be a verbal trap. Rather the question is a sincere attempt to help.

The question reframes the entire discussion and has the effect of opening up the mind to search for new solutions. I have seen the “What didn’t you do?” question trigger creative thinking, leading to some innovative responses.

So if you ever feel you are at a dead end, stop endlessly repeating in your mind all the things you have tried, almost like each valiant effort earned you a scout merit badge, some reprieve from the stink of failure, some sort of a passing grade for good effort.

Instead, ask yourself (and others on your team, your friends, your mentors, your cheerleaders, your coaches, your support group) this empowering, liberating question: “What haven’t I tried, what haven’t I done?”

This is a classic from the NSC Blog archive, originally posted September 26, 2008.