The Right Kind of Wrong

I was immensely privileged to attend the book launch of Amy Edmondson‘s new book ‘Right Kind of Wrong: Why Learning to Fail Can Teach Us to Thrive’ (Cornerstone Press, 2023), an event elegantly yet warmly organised and curated by Mark McMordie, Nicole Toorenaar, Scott Chambers, and Anouk Holsboer, supported by Sarah Barlow, of Caerus Change.


Building on her ground-breaking work on psychological safety, Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, explained how we get failure (a potentially invaluable learning opportunity) wrong, and how to get it right, highlighting that the most successful organisational cultures are those in which you can fail openly, without your mistakes being held against you (yes: successful failure has a very close link with psychological safety).


We’re living in turbulent times, and, as Amy Edmondson points out, failure is both more likely than ever – but if it’s the right kind of failure, it’s also more valuable than ever.  Equally, experimentation is more important than ever – because if you don’t experiment, you don’t learn, and if you don’t learn, you will be increasingly ill-equipped to flourish as a leader in an uncertain, complex and changing world.  As Edmondson says, risk-taking and failure need to be normalised – and this is particularly the case for the leader and leadership.


While most failures in organisations are treated as blameworthy – and there are failures we should definitely work hard to prevent – there are others we should welcome.  The latter are the intelligent failures: undesirable results from forays into new and unknown territory, in pursuit of a clearly articulated goal, which are small, and on which you’ve done the homework, so you have good reason to believe it might succeed.


On the other hand, the kinds of failures we can – and need to – prevent are:


Basic failure (an undesirable result from a single cause in known territory). The knowledge already exists about how to achieve a desired result but we don’t use it.  In this case failure is largely preventable, because it’s caused by, for example, inattention, neglect, overconfidence, or faulty assumptions.  It could be blameworthy if, for example, the agreed procedures haven’t been followed




Complex failure: an undesirable result in familiar but complex territory, which has multiple causes, none of which created the failure on its own.  Usually a mix of internal factors collides with external factors, preceded by subtle warning signs, which often include at least one external, seemingly uncontrollable, factor.  A complex failure offers multiple opportunities for prevention: one fix might prevent the failure.


Thought-provoking and immensely resourcing ideas that, it seems to me, take us forward in an important way that helps equip us for the times we’re in, rather than the times we’ve come from.


Photo by Mat King


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