Failing intelligently : The right kind of wrong with Amy Edmondson

“When we avoid failure, we also avoid discovery and accomplishment…”

Such a fitting thought for the rich & fun discussion Amy and I had on failing intelligently and learning to thrive. Humans aren’t an exact science, and neither is failing – so how we can change the way we think, act and interact about failure – in organisations, in society and in our personal lives ?  We are all fallible human beings, with assumptions biases and emotions, so how can we reframe our mental models to harness this?

In the world of innovation, the spoken mantra is “Fail fast” (and all the variations on this theme) yet everything is geared towards not failing. Leaders still default to ‘failure is not an option’ so then how can we normalise learning from failure ? What are the dangers of failing poorly, not speaking up and what implications will this have for organisations in a future where change is the only constant?

We explore the different types of failure, how to be smarter in the way you fail, and the way you can set yourself and your organisation up to create a healthy culture of failure – essential in a fast moving world. Fearless organisations can learn from how systems fail and articulate this as a goal; using creative resilience, emotional regulation and choosing learning over knowing to strive for excellence and thriving

Amy generously shares her stories, research, insights and wisdom on this critical topic.

The main insights you’ll get from this episode are : 

–       The Right Kind of Wrong looks at learning from failure, essential in a fast-moving world. Most failures are not caused by mistakes, but by the undesired results of experiments in new territory – mistakes only occur when prior knowledge exists.

–       Failures are divided into three categories:

·      Intelligent failures of the kind scientists make as a result of thoughtful forays in pursuit of a goal

·      Basic failures with a single cause, usually a mistake

·      Complex failures, which are multicausal and due to multiple unfortunate factors (a single factor would have been fine)

–       Failures are stepping stones to success and present a greater opportunity, and it is this reframing, alongside context, that are key. The reframing aspect starts with us overcoming our own confirmation biases.

–       Context comprises different dimensions, such as the degree of uncertainty and the stakes. Under duress, individuals make mistakes, but teams rectify/compensate for mistakes and therefore perform well overall.

–       Do better teams make fewer mistakes? Data shows that better teams had higher error rates but were more open to reporting them as a result of a good interpersonal climate (= psychological safety).

–       It is possible to fail fast if the context is right – working fast to fail fast is cost-efficient and a fail fast mindset is good for reasonably low stakes and high uncertainty scenarios (e.g. entrepreneurs, inventors).

–       The senior level of organisations tends to be based around fear with no context-appropriate language – leaders still default to ‘failure is not an option’ and ‘only perfection is welcome’, which ensure the absence of a speak-up culture and do not foster good performance.

–       In turbulent times, innovation is more necessary than ever, and the messaging must therefore be about striving for excellence, being ambitious, and understanding chaos.

–       Excellence in an uncertain world means recognising the default mental model of perfection; it means preventing as many basic failures as possible, mitigating complex failures and embracing intelligent failures – with pivoting as an alternative to celebrating failure.

–       Generative AI will have enormous effects on the systems in which we operate – handling this requires humility, curiosity, thoughtfulness, mindfulness, and a smart failure strategy on the right scale.

–       We need robust early warning systems for a healthy culture of learning: most complex failures come with subtle warnings, but they are often overlooked. The Toyota production system (cf. Andon cord) is designed for learning and invites input for possible mistakes at an early stage.

–       Fearless organisations learn from how systems fail and articulate this as a goal encompassing continuous improvement for excellence; the requisite structures for individual learning; emotional regulation; and choosing learning over knowing.

–       We must talk about and learn from disappointments and missteps at work, as well as make it safe to do so – the playing field for failure is not a level one in terms of diversity.

–       Creative resilience is about failing well – nurturing capacity for resilience through better self-talk, e.g. disappointing as opposed to catastrophic, being open about failure and helping others embrace it.

–       Leaders use intelligent failure to build a healthy culture by being willing to own (up to) their own failures and act as role models – by going back to basics as a fallible human being.

Find out more about Amy here :

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