Amy Edmondson is best known for pioneering the concept of psychological safety. In her latest book, she explores the upsides of failure, and how to fail well (one condition to do this in an organisation is, not surprisingly, psychological safety).
The book is in two parts – the first explores the concept of failure, and how it is a fundamental part of being a fallible human being and a requirement for innovation; the second provides some essential approaches to practising the science of failing well.
Edmondson explores why failure is hard – including aversion, confusion and fear. She explains that ironically, our aversion to failures makes experiencing them more likely and increases the negative impact they may create.
Edmondson provides nine failure-context combinations. The three types of failures are intelligent, basic and complex. Intelligent failures take place in new territory, the context presents a credible opportunity to advance toward a desired goal, and they are informed by available knowledge, and is as small as they can be to still provide valuable insights. Basic failures are when errors happen because we don’t use knowledge that was available, whether due to inattention, neglect or overconfidence. Complex failures happen in familiar settings that present a degree of complexity where multiple factors can interact in unexpected ways.
The three categories of contexts in which failures can occur are consistent, variable and novel. She discusses which types of errors are common in which kinds of contexts, and what strategies tend to avoid the unnecessary ones, and learn from the inevitable ones.
She argues that failing well requires self-awareness (failure is normal and useful, choose learning over knowing), situation awareness (the degree of novelty and uncertainty, and the level of risk involved) and system awareness (who and what might be impacted, and when – now and into the future).
She introduces a range of strategies including reframing (mistakes are normal in complex/novel situations), amplifying weak signals (those subtle warning signs), practising for failure so as to be prepared to respond to mistakes when they occur, considering the system, redrawing boundaries, persistence, reflection, accountability and apologizing.
I highlighted A LOT of this book, and it took me quite a long time to read, because there was so much valuable content to digest. I also really loved the case studies, ranging from medical errors, shipping disasters, financial markets, to champagne!
I especially resonated with her point that we need to stop thinking about failure as an ending, and rather to think about it as an opportunity to learn, to pivot, to decide where to experiment next, or even sometimes to give up and move on.