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Failure is key to learning

Innovation

Right kind of wrong: why failure is a powerful tool for progress and innovation

Published 12 September 2023 in Innovation • 7 min read

Amy Edmondson, the influential organizational psychologist, tells I by IMD how we get failure wrong — and how to get it right.  

The journey began with a lofty goal: unravel the mystery of separating messenger RNA into two distinct strands, so it could bind with protein. In the laboratory of Jennifer Heemstra, a Chemistry Professor at Emory University, the team needed first to develop a method to separate the double-helix RNA into two strands.

Along the way, they encountered challenges and faced the disheartening reality of numerous failed experiments. While disappointment might have been the natural response, what set this laboratory apart is the nurturing of a culture that embraces failure as a stepping stone to success.  

Heemstra had cultivated an environment where setbacks weren’t devastating or embarrassing but rather opportunities for growth. Eventually, through perseverance and an unconventional source of inspiration — a relic from the 1960s — they stumbled upon a paper that used a reagent called Glyoxal; this worked to separate RNA, culminating in a significant discovery that earned its place in the pages of a prestigious scientific journal. 

This remarkable journey forms the opening of Chapter 2 in a new book by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, titled Right Kind of Wrong. Edmondson aims to redefine our relationship with failure, in scientific, commercial, and even personal settings, transforming it into a powerful tool for progress. 

Redefining the value of failure  

Historically failure has been viewed by most as something to be avoided in business – and in life. Today, it’s seen as holding intrinsic value. Phrases like “fail fast, fail often” are commonplace, but the emphasis has not consistently been on distinguishing between failures that yield positive outcomes and those that do not. To help, Edmondson introduces three archetypes of failure: basic, complex, and intelligent.  

Basic failures have a single identifiable cause that leads to bad outcomes – for example, when Citigroup accidentally wired nearly $900 million to a company instead of an $8 million interest payment due to human error.  

“We know that human beings will make mistakes,” says Edmondson. “And that is why it is so important to set up organizations with failure-proofing, training, and safety scaffolding to help us do the best we can to prevent preventable failures and to catch and correct human errors before they cause failures.”   

Fear is the enemy of learning. Fear is the enemy of excellence in any endeavor where there’s uncertainty.
- Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School

That means setting up simple designs in our lives and workplaces – for example, hospitals use surgical checklists to verify the presence and removal of all instruments in the operating room, to help ensure that surgeons do not accidentally leave objects inside a patient’s body after surgery – a preventable failure that is rare but has unfortunately occurred many times.

Complex failures are caused by multiple factors that happen to line up or come together in just the wrong way. Any one of the factors, on their own, would not have caused the failure, but the way they came together creates a problematic perfect storm. 

In any dynamic and challenging work environment, Edmondson acknowledges that some preventable failures — both basic and complex — will inevitably occur. She urges business leaders to embrace the reality of uncertainty with humility: “Each and every one of us is a fallible human being. Given that’s a fact, our best option is to live with it joyfully. Our default state is to fight against it, pretend it’s not there, and cover it up. Nonsense. We cannot wish fallibility away.”  

Adopting a scientific mindset characterized by critical thinking and open-mindedness is essential. She says it involves viewing work projects as learning experiences and aspiring to achieve excellence, but “recognizing that it will require being attentive to detail and new information that leads you to realize you need to pivot”.

Edmondson cautions that her book is not an endorsement of thoughtless risk-taking. “We don’t want people to be foolish. We don’t want people to engage in risky behavior and not be afraid. We want people to have an appropriate degree of respect for real risk,” she says.  

Not all failures are bad. Intelligent failures, according to Edmondson, comprise valuable discoveries that would otherwise be unattainable. “A good failure is one that happens in new territory where you can’t look up the answer in advance. It is in pursuit of a goal. It’s driven by a hypothesis. And it’s no bigger than it needs to be for learning.”     

Failure as a route to success

Edmondson stresses that her focus is not so much on failure as on understanding the processes of learning, thriving, and achieving success. “None of those are possible without a deep understanding of failure, the different kinds of failure, and how you navigate the remarkable challenges and uncertainty in the world of work today,” she says. 

Her distinguished academic career has been dedicated to this pursuit – especially in high-stakes fields like medicine, where errors can be life-threatening. One of her earliest studies focused on medication errors in hospitals and explored how group dynamics and organizational factors influence these mistakes. Her work underscores the importance of understanding failure not as an end, but as a way to learn, grow, and prosper in a world facing turbulent times.  

the relationship between people is represented by several small and arranged objects Generative AI
A small group of people who really get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses well over a period of time, and can almost effortlessly coordinate. That’s the gold standard where teamwork is most natural

She says: “We can learn from all failures, but there are some for which the only way to learn that lesson is through that failure. In other words, the only way to acquire the new knowledge is to experiment and see what happens.” Unfortunately, though, many people are afraid to fail.

“Most are unaware of the degree to which our default mindset today is a vestige of the industrial era,” Edmondson says. Once a process and a market were created, it was possible to succeed for a long stretch without much experimentation or change. Reliable production was vital to success in mass production in factories; this (rather than experimentation and innovation) determined a company’s growth and competitiveness. But this mindset left a legacy that made employees uncomfortable to share ideas, take risks, or voice concerns. 

Edmondson urges business leaders to “drive fear out of the organization”, as the management thinker Edwards Deming once said. “Fear is the enemy of learning. Fear is the enemy of excellence in any endeavor where there’s uncertainty,” she says.  

Psychological safety and effective collaboration  

To embrace our human fallibility and learn exactly when to fail well, fostering psychological safety – a subject that Edmondson has studied voraciously – is paramount. That means creating a workplace culture where individuals feel confident voicing their opinions and contributions, free from ridicule or punishment. “If you want to be a learning organization, which you must if you want to succeed over the long term in a changing world, then you must have an environment where people feel safe to speak up about what is going on,” she says.  

Collaboration is equally vital. Edmondson’s research into teaming highlights the importance of these dynamics. “More than ever before, the nature of work today precludes stable teams – a small group of people who really get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses well over a period of time, and can almost effortlessly coordinate. That’s the gold standard where teamwork is most natural,” she says. But many jobs today are not conducive to single, stable teams. Instead, we have to get comfortable teaming with different people at different times.  

The way to do teaming well is for leaders to continually emphasize the importance of the overarching goal,” she adds. “It’s difficult, so you want people to be motivated. You want to re-energize and re-inspire them often with discussions of those who depend on us, how important it is, how meaningful it is.”  

That is going to be crucial in an era marked by macroeconomic slowdowns, social upheaval, burnout, and climate change concerns. With organizations facing numerous pressures, failure is going to be inevitable. However, we can take steps to minimize bad failures and maximize valuable ones.  

Edmondson concludes: “With best practices and vigilance, you can avoid most wasteful failures, and you can learn to appreciate the wisdom of increasing the rate of intelligent failures, because that’s where innovation comes from.” The message is clear: in a world in turmoil, failure can be a powerful ally on the path to success and innovation.  

Amy Edmondson will be discussing ‘Making the most of failure’ on a panel at this year’s Global Peter Drucker Forum on 30 Nov in Vienna. This year’s theme is ‘Creative Resilience: Leading in an Age of Discontinuity.’

Authors

Zhike Lei

Zhike Lei

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior, IMD

Zhike Lei is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior. She is an award-winning organizational scholar and an expert on psychological safety, team dynamics, organizational learning, error management, and patient safety. Lei studies how organizations, teams, and employees adapt and learn in complex, time-pressured, consequence-laden environments. As a global management educator, she has taught executives and PhD, DBA, EMBA, and MBA candidates, as well as undergraduates, and has won numerous teaching awards and recognitions.

Experts

Amy Edmondson HBR

Amy Edmondson

Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School

Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, a chair established to support the study of human interactions that lead to the creation of successful enterprises that contribute to the betterment of society. Amy Edmondson’s book, entitled Right Kind of Wrong: Why Learning to Fail Can Teach Us to Thrive, was published on 7 September 2023 (Penguin, UK).

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