Silicon Valley techies and management gurus urge us today to celebrate failure. “Fail fast, fail often,” has become a mantra in some circles. Various companies have experimented with weekly or monthly declarations from staff of their failures and lessons learned.
But Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson warns that can be simplistic: Not all failures are equal. Some are helpful. Some are harmful.
Her pioneering work on psychological safety came from a mistake she initially feared would end her career. She was studying medication errors, believing the best teams would have fewer, but the data showed the opposite, with more mistakes where teamwork was the highest. The reason, it turned out, was that those teams provided a safe environment for sharing mistakes and thus were therefore more likely to be admitted.
It’s complicated. You need to find the right kind of wrong if you are to profit from failure. Even then, learning from mistakes is easier said than done. We have an instinctive emotional aversion to failure. Confusion can occur as we try to interpret the situation. And there is a social stigma to failure.
To handle that aversion, managers must reframe the situation. One way is to look at the cause and where it sits on a continuum from blameworthy to praiseworthy. Ms. Edmondson offers these six examples, starting from the blameworthy side: Sabotage, inattention, inability, challenge, uncertainty and experimentation. Sabotage and inattention must be weeded out, experimentation encouraged.
The efforts to celebrate failure are referring to what she calls intelligent failure, which has four attributes. It takes place in new territory; the context presents a credible opportunity to advance toward a desired goal (be that a scientific discovery or a new friendship); it is informed by available knowledge making it hypothesis-driven; and the failure is as small as it can be to still provide valuable insights.
“The failure is intelligent because it’s the result of a thoughtful experiment – not a haphazard or sloppy one,” she writes in Right Kind of Wrong.
You must do your homework. You must think through what might happen. Her Harvard colleague Thomas Eisenmann has found that many start-up failures are caused by skipping the basic homework. She cites one of the worst new product failures – Crystal Pepsi. It was a 1992 effort to capitalize on a market trend favouring clear and caffeine-free drinks that failed to take into account clear drinks in clear bottles deteriorate easily and subsequently taste lousy.
Because failures consume time and resources, you’re smart to use both judiciously. Her mother kept the date with the man who would become her father small: They met for a drink. Because failure can affect reputations, Ms. Edmondson notes it can make sense to experiment behind closed doors, as happens when we try on new clothes in a changing room. Shutting down projects as soon as it’s clear they are not working is another way to keep the impact small.
She recommends creating incentives in pilot projects that motivate them not to succeed but to fail well. She says you have to answer yes to the following four questions to design a smart pilot project. Is the pilot being tested under typical (or better yet, challenging) circumstances rather than optimal ones? Is the goal of the pilot to learn as much as possible (not to prove the success of the innovation to senior executives)? Is it clear that compensation and performance reviews are not based on a successful outcome for the pilot? Were explicit changes made as a result of the pilot?
Intelligent failures are one of three she delineates in her topology of failures. Basic failures are the most different. They involve errors in well-trodden territory, usually “oopses” with a single cause. They are unproductive, wasting time, energy and resources. They can sometimes produce learning but essentially they are not the right kind of wrong.
“Nearly all basic failures can be averted with care and without need of ingenuity and invention,” she says. But she warns you must remember they are unintended and thus the strategy for preventing them can’t be punishment since it will encourage people not to admit failure and probably increase the number of basic failures you face.
The final type is the perfect storm, complex failure where many little things add up to produce the failure, which can be small or large. She points to the tragedy on the film set Rust, where actor and producer Alec Baldwin held a gun that somehow discharged, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins with a “live” bullet when none were supposed to be on the set. Complex failures are not the right kind of wrong, but she says that “like intelligent and basic failures, complex failures can be powerful teachers, if we are willing to do the hard work of learning from them.”
The urge with failure is to find a culprit – blame it on a single individual or cause. She stresses that just reduces the psychological safety required to practice the science of failing well. You still want accountability, although it must come through what she calls blameless reporting. “A culture that makes it safe to admit failure can (and in high-risk environments must) coexist with high performance standards,” she says.
That doesn’t make for a bumper-sticker mantra like “Fail fast, fail often.” It’s more nuanced and complicated but a better way of understanding the failure – and opportunity to learn from failures – around us.
- On D-Day Dwight Eisenhower prepared a message to share if the invasion failed, moving away author Jeff Nussbaum notes from the passive “mistakes were made” framework leaders have been using dating back to Ulysses S. Grant’s comment on the scandals of his presidency. Mr. Eisenhower’s handwritten notes reveal two corrections: “The troops have been withdrawn” became “I have withdrawn the troops” and “this particular operation” became “my decision to attack.” Leaders take responsibility.
- Aerodei CEO Netta Jenkins says a misconception about equity and diversity initiatives is that they should report to HR. Employees inherently distrust HR, seeing it as being on the employer’s side. DEI needs its own department.
- Recruiting specialist John Sullivan recommends hiring people working at competitors, who can being new skills and practices that can rejuvenate your team.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.