Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Fail smarter: What the research tells us about failure and growth

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Amy Edmondson

Failure should be an option, especially when it's the "right kind" of failure. 

Professor Amy Edmondson joined the Rotman Visiting Experts podcast to talk about her new book Right Kind of Wrong, which explores the three types of failures we encounter day to day, and explain why certain types are more effective at helping us grow than others. 

Three take-aways from this episode include: 

  1. We're conditioned to avoid failures, and even when it's encouraged (Silicon Valley's "fail fast and break things" mentality) it can create a cognitive dissonance that is hard to reconcile. It was partially out of that disconnect that Edmondson decided to create a framework around failure. In her view, there are three types of failures: basic, complex and intelligent. We should avoid basic and complex failures (both fully avoidable if we have a solid process and environment of psychological safety - more on that in a minute) but embrace intelligent failures...
  2. The reason we should embrace intelligent failures is that they offer such a rich opportunity to learn from our mistakes. "An intelligent failure is an undesired result of a novel foray into new territory. And that could be new territory for the world or new territory for you. If you're a little kid, and you've never ridden a bicycle before, and you get on that bicycle trying to learn how to ride it, that's new territory for you. And there is absolutely no way you will learn to ride that bike without some failures along the way," she says. Indeed, in Edmondon's view, some of the greatest minds - regardless of industry - tend to be folks who failed frequenty, but learned from their mistakes. So, when you're embarking on something new, don't be afraid to fail, but instead embrace every miss-step as a chance to improve.
  3. Of course, in organizational settings all kinds of failures require an environment of psychological safety. Where intelligent failures are good, you need a boss who encourages you to make mistakes and learn from them. And to avoid basic or complex failures, you need a culture that encourages people to speak up, even when they're uncertain on whether something will/is going wrong. If people are afraid to highlight a potential problem, it's almost certainly a recipe for failure. 

Give the whole episode a listen above!

New episodes of Rotman Visiting Experts are released monthly on SpotifyApple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. Desktop listeners can also tune in on Simplecast.

Would you rather read than listen in? Check out the full transcript of the episode here

Missed the first season? Give it a listen here

Amy Edmondson is a professor of management at the Harvard Business School.

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