Article: ‘There's a right way to fail’: Amy Edmondson

Strategic HR

‘There's a right way to fail’: Amy Edmondson

Organisational psychologist Amy Edmondson explains why companies must differentiate between preventable errors and calculated risks that advance learning
‘There's a right way to fail’: Amy Edmondson

In today's breakneck business landscape, conventional wisdom exalts a fearless appetite for failure as the key to unlocking innovation. Mantras like "fail fast" and "fail often" have become widely embraced across industries. However, according to organisational psychologist Amy Edmondson, unqualified obedience to such doctrines overlooks crucial nuances about the role of failure in driving sustainable progress.

Edmondson, whose seminal research on psychological safety transformed how companies nurture open communication and candid collaboration, makes a critical distinction in her book "The Right Kind of Wrong" - not all failures are created equal. She identifies a paradoxical upside to certain categories of failure that advance learning and push boundaries.

"There's this all-or-nothing view of failure that just isn't accurate," Edmondson explains. "The 'good' failures are the ones you encounter while exploring uncharted territory through systematically taking calculated risks and conducting thoughtful experiments."

These "intelligent failures," as Edmondson terms them, represent promising ideas or methodically tested hypotheses that didn't unfold as anticipated. They are the byproduct of striving towards an ambitious goal, gathering insights through trial-and-error to progressively iterate and optimise solutions.

Calculated risks for breakthroughs

Such productive failures stand in stark contrast to the sloppy mistakes or preventable lapses that often undermine organisational performance. Edmondson cites the success stories of companies like Dyson and WD-40, whose breakthrough innovations were built upon foundations of insightful failed prototypes and formulations.

"Our biggest hurdle is the pervasive fear of being wrong that stifles experimentation," Edmondson says. "It reflects a subtle aversion to learning, this preference for acting like we already have all the answers. It holds us back from taking those intelligent risks that ultimately lead to meaningful discoveries."

This entrenched resistance to embracing smart failures as potential learning opportunities represents an existential threat in today's VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) business environment. Edmondson points to the COVID-19 pandemic's mass disruption of traditional workplace norms as a crucible that underscores the urgency of normalising intelligent risk-taking.

"The complexities of hybrid work models provide the perfect proving ground for experimentation," she states. "There's no one-size-fits-all solution, so thoughtful team-level trials are essential for finding the ideal balance between individual needs and organisational objectives."

Edmondson outlines a pragmatic framework for cultivating a cultural climate that destigmatises failures that advance the learning curve. It centres on leaders' ability to differentiate preventable errors from forgivable experimentation missteps, maintaining open channels for team members to voice concerns that could avert basic mistakes.

"You have to know your failures and be crystal clear about the difference between unavoidable setbacks that happen when you're charting new frontiers versus those that could have been prevented," she advises. "With that common understanding in place, the next step is encouraging teams to brainstorm intelligent, well-designed experiments to test creative approaches."

Facilitating ongoing dialogue throughout each experiment's lifecycle is pivotal, Edmondson emphasises. By aligning the team around the hypothesis being explored, the methodology behind it, and its overarching context within broader organisational objectives, communication becomes the catalyst for transformation. 

"With relentless transparency, your team evolves into a powerful learning engine, continually experimenting, analysing data, and making informed refinements to drive innovation," she says.

At its core, shifting to an intelligent failure mindset involves a recalibration of how organisations perceive and respond to unsuccessful outcomes. Rather than sources of embarrassment or justification for punishment, Edmondson reframes insightful failures as springboards for progress to be studied, internalised, and built upon. 

Establishing this psychological safety imperative requires leaders to embody the vulnerability and humility to embrace being wrong in service of gaining wisdom. By openly discussing and probing the root causes of errors and fruitful failures, they demonstrate the transparency required to earn team members' trust.

"It starts with leaders creating an inspiring, motivating sense of shared purpose that energises people to go above and beyond," Edmondson explains. "Compassion is important, but it's even more crucial to intimately understand the challenges teams face and work together to craft unconventional solutions."

As companies across sectors confront escalating pressures to continually reinvent themselves, Edmondson's philosophy represents a masterclass in the counterintuitive path towards sustainable innovation. Her insights provide a route for escaping the shackles of myopic, risk-averse thinking through committing wholeheartedly to intelligent experimentation.

By decoupling the emotional sting of failure from its revelatory potential for accelerating learning curves, Edmondson points towards a future where teams are no longer paralysed by ingrained fears. Instead, they find the courage and resilience to embrace being wrong as a journey of reinvention - constantly taking calculated risks that stretch boundaries, expand understanding, and propel meaningful growth.

For more insights, check out the detailed interview here.

Read full story

Topics: Strategic HR, Leadership, #BigInterview

Did you find this story helpful?


Your opinion matters: Tell us how we're doing this quarter!

Selected Score :