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Mastering the Art of Failing: Lessons from Amy Edmonson

It may sound counterintuitive, but failure should be embraced, not feared. 

  • 11 December 2023

Let's face it—nobody wants to fail. We all strive for success. But is it realistic to assume we can always win? What if failure led to success? It may sound counterintuitive, but failure should be embraced, not feared. 

During an enlightening conversation I had with Amy Edmonson, Harvard Business School professor, expert in psychological safety and leadership, and author of "The Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing,” a refreshing takeaway emerged: When done right, failure becomes not a stumbling block but a solid stepping stone to success. Her insights are particularly relevant for leaders who, in navigating numerous challenges without having all the answers, can embrace failure as a personal and team growth opportunity.

I hosted Edmonson for an insightful discussion about the transformative power of failure as part of the 100th episode of my podcast, "The Art of the Excellence." During the conversation, she shed light on the wisdom that the most successful individuals in their fields often attribute their achievements to embracing failure. "The people who fail the most are also the most successful at their field," she asserts, citing Nobel-winning scientists, elite athletes, and innovators. 

The key lies in intelligent failure—that is, undesired events in pursuit of a clear goal, yielding new discoveries, providing valuable insights, and enabling learning. This type of failure, according to Amy, paves the way for innovation, collaboration, and the inclusion of diverse and dissenting voices within a team. Conversely, “bad” failures, instead of bringing new learnings, waste unnecessary time, resources and even reputation given their lack of purpose.

How to Fail the Right Way: Three Ingredients

1. Team Psychological Safety

In psychologically safe environments, individuals aren’t afraid to take risks. They don’t fear punishment or rejection. This is why team psychological safety, a term Edmonson coined, is so important. When individuals feel safe to experiment, speak up, and seek help, their ability to learn increases exponentially. However, not every organization is consistent in that regard. “In my empirical observations regarding interpersonal climate, it varied substantially across teams in the same organization,” she highlights, adding that without a psychologically safe environment, there is no room for failure – therefore no room for learning. 

The stigma around failure originates from a societal belief that failing is unacceptable and even shameful. To break free from this misconception, leaders must actively champion psychologically safe teams where mistakes are not just tolerated but seen as an opportunity to refine, learn, improve. Attaining such level of awareness as a leader takes intentional work and development, and it leads to positive cultures and better outcomes. “A sign of a healthy failure culture in an organization is when their focus is on preventing preventable failures. When courage is not necessary to speak up in the work environment,” Amy underscores.

2. Growth Mindset

During our conversation, Amy draws inspiration from Thomas Edison’s quote, “I haven't failed, I found 10,000 ways that didn't work,” to emphasize that success often requires persistence and learning from the multiple failures. In organizations, leaders that reframe their team’s mindset around failure with a focus on growth can benefit the most. However, with most cultures being centered on efficiency and productivity, taking a step back after the fact to assess the error and consider other hypothetical ideas and their possible implications is rare. When we think about teams who are on development journeys, this is precisely the kind of reflection needed in order to enhance self-awareness and bring the culture where it needs to be in order to meet business goals.

This is where the technique of “reframing” can be applied. “It consists of realizing the automatic thinking and having the choice to reframe the event or situation differently. It is taking an opportunity and deriving consequences from it, instead of focusing on being late to a meeting which will have detrimental consequences on my career,” Edmonson explains. Reframing situations to a learning opportunity can help prevent the same failure from happening in the future and will foster a healthier and more productive opportunity to learn and grow.

3. Resilience

“Thriving as fallible human beings” is what Amy titled the last chapter of her book, “The Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing.” It underscores that while individuals are prone to making mistakes, they should embrace a more joyful, thoughtful, and lighthearted outlook about our inherent fallibility. I couldn’t agree more with Amy. During our conversation, I cited a quote from chemistry Nobel laureate Bob Lefkowitz that shares that sentiment. He says, "the best scientists in the world have failed 98% of the time." Amy broadens this perspective by contending that scientists, athletes, and innovators inherently incorporate failure into their processes, given that the outcomes are still uncertain. “They're the ones who fail more often than you and me, because they know that to really push the craft that they are working toward, they must fail.”

By cultivating resilience towards failure, understanding that success isn't synonymous with constant triumph or reduced instances of failure, but rather entails embracing failure as an integral facet of the journey, leaders—and all individuals—fortify themselves to emerge with fresh insights, a widened perspective, and innovative approaches. This resilience becomes a transformative force, enabling them to analyze and navigate the pathway to success with newfound depth and adaptability.

Failure is part of human nature. Whether in personal or professional settings, pursuing success and excellence eludes us all. What if the essence of our humanity lied upon our ability to encounter failure, learn from it, recalibrate, and emerge fortified? Maybe individuals, teams, organizations would have a different outlook on what success meant. This transformative process demands introspection and individual growth, followed by collaborative efforts within a team or a collective to harness the potential of these unique learning moments.

The insights Amy Edmonson generously shared with me in the podcast – and which I highly enjoyed reading in her book – truly resonated with me, and I hope it resonates with the reader too. It’s reassuring to confront the paradox that success often hinges on our capacity to navigate and learn from failures.

As leaders embark on the journey towards better leadership, personal growth, and fostering a healthier organizational culture aligned with goals and conducive to experimentation, the acceptance of failure becomes an integral part of that transformative journey. It is in acknowledging and embracing these setbacks that leaders pave the way for innovation, resilience, and ultimately, enduring success.

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