Many of the insights from this blog are derived from a talk given by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson at the Inner Development Goals Summit. If you are interested in watching the full talk (and other amazing speakers) then you can purchase a ticket to access the recordings using this link.
Here at the Self Leadership Initiative, we’ve already touched upon the importance of failure. Failure is a natural part of life and learning well from failures is essential for helping your teams to succeed. You can read a previous blog here.
THE CHANGING ATTITUDES TO FAILURE
In recent years, the narrative around failure has shifted. It is now commonly accepted that failure is something to be open to, and, compassionate about – whether that has permeated into every team and workplace is another question. Certainly in popular media and self development circles people are advocating for finding your comfort with failure, dancing with failure and using it to your advantage. One of the most obvious indicators of this is the rise of failure and success motivational quotes and podcast episodes around the merits of failure:
“It’s not how far you fall, but how high you bounce that counts.” – Zig Ziglar
“When we give ourselves permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel.” – Eloise Ristad
These remind us that failure is relative to success and often presents important opportunities on the road to growth. However, the boom in acceptance of failure also leads to a slightly different narrative which may glorify failure:
“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill
“Don’t think of it as failure. Think of it as time-released success.” – Robert Orben
In these cases, one may argue that this gives people a permission slip to be careless, risky or uninformed because ‘failure isn’t bad’. So how should we be thinking about failure in order to gain the best psychological and performance outcomes?
Are failures necessary?
Can failure lead to success?
Are failures important in life?
Before attempting to answer any of these questions we need to dig a little deeper into what failure is. In it’s broadest sense failure is defined as:
An outcome that deviates from the expected and desired results.
This makes the definition of failure particularly wide and allows it to apply to any part of your life:
- You hoped to communicate warmth but the other person took it as sarcasm
- A project you are working on is 3 weeks behind schedule
- A patient is given incorrect treatment and becomes seriously ill
An important feature of failure is that it requires us to have a sense of what success would look like so that we recognise when we have not achieved it. But as you can see in the above examples – some failures have a small impact where others are more significant. So how can we expand our understanding of failure?
THE RIGHT KIND OF WRONG
Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson warns us that not all failures are created equal – and that glorifying failure as important and useful without nuance can be problematic.
With that in mind, Edmondson categorises three types of failures:
- Basic failures. These are simple mistakes where we know how to do ‘the thing’ correctly but a single slip or causal factor results in a failure. For example, every day you take your house keys or phone to work but one day you forget. Or, whilst driving you forget to check a mirror and it results in a crash. It is important to note that basic failures can still have severe consequences – what makes them basic is that only one factor is missing.
- Complex failures. These failures involve multiple errors or challenges which combine to create an undesirable outcome. They often happen in new or uncertain environments. For example, a business startup may fail due to lack of processes, changes in market and an unexpected bill all coming together. There have been tragedies in the news where an individual is harmed because trigger signs were not seen by educators, social workers, medical professionals or family members. In both cases, lots of different people and situational elements are interacting to result in the failure.
- Intelligent failures. This is where you get undesired results in response to a thoughtful venture into new territory. These are the failures of learning and growth. For example, a company may be marketing a new product. They did lots of research into the different strategies, weighed up options and chose a solution but it wasn’t as effective as hoped. The failure can still cause detriment, but it has some special ingredients which make it positive.
ARE FAILURES USEFUL IN LIFE?
By outlining three types of failure, Amy Edmondson is able to say with conviction that yes – failures can be useful. But only when they are intelligent failures. The simple and complex failures mentioned above rarely give opportunity for growth – they are usually about missed procedures, chance and lack of capability. Intelligent failures have the ability to present us with new ways of being and so are highly informative.
So what makes an intelligent failure? In her keynote for the IDG summit she outlines four and half criteria for intelligent failure:
- The failure takes place in new territory – When you are in a novel situation, it is difficult to know exactly how to get the results you want. There will need to be an element of experimentation. If you’re working in familiar territory, then you should be utilising the knowledge you already have to get the results you want.
- The failure is opportunity driven – That means that the behaviour or choice which led to the failure did have a possible payoff. During the planning stages you can weigh up the possible costs and benefits of a course of action. If failure is costly, then it is sometimes more sensible not to take action. In other cases, there is potential for learning, growth, business opportunity or relationship building that is worth the risk.
- The failure is informed by prior knowledge – Although you are working in new territory, that doesn’t stop you from doing your research. Intelligent failure includes as much relevant data, experience and advice as possible in order to make an educated decision about a course of action.
- The risk is as small as possible – Ask yourself whether you have identified and mitigated the risks as much as you can in order to reduce the likelihood and impact of failure. Another helpful question is ‘is the action you’re about to take the right size in order to get the outcome you want?’
And her final ‘half’ point is: Did you learn from it?
If a failure happens, it is only valuable and intelligent if you take the time to evaluate it. A failure that is left unexplored is a waste of an opportunity and it is counterintuitive to be comfortable with failure without being curious about how to use it.
HOW CAN LEADERS HELP PEOPLE TO FAIL BETTER?
Knowing about types of failure is a valuable resource for effective leaders. Amy encourages her audience to use this model to ‘rethink excellence’ and evaluate our relationship with failure.
As a leader working with others, here are some ways you can rethink excellence with your teams.
- Education – As a training provider, this is ALWAYS our first tip (bit of bias there!) But in all seriousness, helping your team to recognise that there are different types of failures will develop their self awareness and strategic intelligence.
- Minimise basic failures – if you recognise simple errors which keep occurring in your teams then it may mean that you need extra training, support or processes in place to avoid these. Especially if you are working in an environment where basic failures can lead to significant harm.
- Anticipate and mitigate complex failures – models like SWOT analysis, adaptive leadership or change management processes can be a great way to recognise all of the factors at play in a team, organisation or project. Identifying these allows you to better anticipate risk and put measures in place to reduce the likelihood of failure, or, its impact should it occur.
- Value intelligent failure – encourage norms where people are allowed to take risks and try new things if they ensure that the ingredients for intelligent failure are there; new contexts, a good opportunity, research and knowledge and risk mitigation.
- Give supportive, constructive feedback – failures will occur; that is part of life. Knowing how to learn from them can be a different matter. Having a bank of ‘go to’ reflective questions can help your team to be ready to talk about failure in a useful way: What went well? What could be improved? What do we know now that we didn’t before? What further resources could support us? What challenges do we want to overcome? How? Ensuring that your team are able to give feedback with care is an important role for any effective leader.
- Create psychological safety – when people feel afraid of guilt, humiliation and shame they will be less likely to try new things (and therefore miss opportunities) or they may hide their failures from a sense of fear. This means that it is essential to create a culture where people are appreciated for their efforts, given opportunities to be vulnerable without risk of harm or embarrassment and that people trust that what they share will be heard and acted upon constructively.
MOVING FROM FAILURE TO THE RIGHT KIND OF WRONG
As we are well aware, to be a leader is to wear many hats; visionary, coach, accountability partner, innovator and many more. Now you can add to your list someone who helps your team to understand the failures that they are experiencing so that they can reduce basic and complex failures, maximise intelligent failures and, most importantly, safely learn from them in order to grow.
The Self Leadership Initiative provides development training and coaching to help leaders everywhere unlock their potential. If you want support in maximising intelligent failures and creating growth cultures then book a consultation here.