Article: Failing Fast to Failing Smart: An Interview with Amy Edmondson


Failing Fast to Failing Smart: An Interview with Amy Edmondson

'Fail fast' is dead! The psychological safety guru Amy Edmondson explains how 'smart experiments' and mastering 'failing well' turn setbacks into success stories, in an enlightening conversation with us.
Failing Fast to Failing Smart:  An Interview with Amy Edmondson

We've all felt the sting of failure. But what if it wasn't a mark of shame? In today's fast-paced world, some workplaces embrace the mantra of "failing fast, failing often," while others strive to avoid failure altogether. Award-winning Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, however, offers a more nuanced perspective. In her groundbreaking book, "Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well," she unveils research on how to leverage setbacks for organisational growth.

Professor Amy joins us for a Big Interview, sharing insights on the evolving workplace, leadership behaviour, and the art of "failing well".   

Here are the edited excerpts...

How do you see the new world of work in the aftermath of the disruptions of the last three years, starting with the pandemic? What has changed?

Amy: The world of work has undergone a massive shift. We haven't quite mapped it all out yet, but I believe organisations will be actively exploring different hybrid work models and innovative collaboration techniques. The key lies in rigorously testing these approaches to see what truly delivers results. Ideally, we'll see a renewed focus on workplace effectiveness – how to get things done in the most productive way possible. This might temporarily mean prioritising efficiency over pure employee preference.

High-performing cultures thrive on psychological safety. It empowers people to challenge the status quo - Amy Edmondson

Have you witnessed a shift in how organisations embrace psychological safety over the years? Are we seeing real changes in workplace culture and leadership behaviours? 

Amy: Psychological safety has become a hot topic. But here's the rub: there's a big difference between acknowledging its importance and truly understanding what it takes to build it.

Everyone might agree that open and honest conversations are crucial, especially in these times of uncertainty. But the reality is, fostering a psychologically safe environment is a tough nut to crack. We have deeply ingrained cultural norms that make it more natural to stay silent than to speak up. And these norms don't just vanish overnight.

Think about it this way – when people truly understand the consequences of holding back, like potential harm to patients, missed trends, or launching faulty products, they're less likely to keep quiet.

Honestly, I think we've underestimated the importance of specific leadership skills – the ability to be curious, provide coaching, and embrace a learning mindset. These aren't always the norm in management styles. But if we can cultivate these skills, then we're on the right track to building a truly learning organisation.

Some folks might argue that psychological safety isn't a one-size-fits-all approach for high-performing workplaces, especially in environments where taking risks and failing aren't encouraged. What's your take on that?

Amy: That's a great point. But here's the thing: to me, that argument reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what psychological safety is all about. In reality, it's the key for a high-performing culture. Think about it this way: you hire these brilliant knowledge workers, and then you shut them down from using their expertise? That's a recipe for mediocrity, not excellence.

Psychological safety isn't about being everyone's best friend. It's not about lowering the bar or giving people a free pass to complain. It's not about avoiding conflict or creating a comfort zone. In fact, it's about embracing a little bit of discomfort in the pursuit of greatness.

Telling your boss they've missed something or disagreeing with the popular opinion – those are tough conversations, but they're also crucial for growth.  Unfortunately, some people confuse psychological safety with feeling constantly comfortable. That kind of environment would definitely hinder high performance.

Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm - Amy Edmondson  

Research shows that psychological safety, as I define and measure it, is essential for high performance. The more knowledge-based and collaborative the work is, the greater the impact of psychological safety on success.  For truly routine tasks, where there's no need for judgement or creativity, it might not be a critical factor. But as soon as you step outside the mundane and enter a knowledge-intensive environment, that's where psychological safety becomes a major performance booster.

Are there situations where pursuing psychological safety might not be the most suitable approach? 

Amy: It's not that psychological safety is a bad idea in any situation. In fact, people who truly understand lean principles and effective teamwork know it's essential. When team members are afraid to speak up about small issues or process deviations, it throws a wrench into the whole collaborative process.

The impact of psychological safety is stronger in knowledge-intensive work compared to routine tasks. It's not that it's useless in routine tasks, but it highlights the importance of strong people management skills. Building psychological safety requires leaders who are naturally curious, good listeners, and have a strong learning orientation.  And let's be honest, not everyone walks around with a built-in "learning mode" switched on.

Think about it like this: Satya Nadella at Microsoft talks about the power of a growth mindset – that constant drive to learn, improve, and push boundaries. Psychological safety complements that perfectly. It gives people the freedom to take interpersonal risks, not necessarily in terms of big business decisions, but in how they interact with each other. It's about feeling safe to speak your mind, even if it means disagreeing with someone.

You mentioned building psychological safety can be tough. Any advice for leaders struggling to foster it, especially when performance pressures are high?

Amy: It's about creating a space for learning, which can be uncomfortable. Think back to learning to ride a bike – scraped knees are part of the process.  Psychological safety is like giving people the green light to take those learning risks, without fear of judgement or punishment.

Psychological safety fosters a learning environment. It might seem counterintuitive under pressure, but it's crucial for long-term success.

That's a great point about the challenges of building psychological safety. How do we know if our efforts are paying off? Are there specific ways to measure its effectiveness?

Amy: Sure, surveys are a common and reliable way to gauge psychological safety. Most employee surveys already include questions that tap into this, like "Is it easy to ask for help here?" or "Do you worry about getting in trouble for making mistakes?"

For me, the real test is in the results. Studies show a clear link between psychological safety and strong performance in diverse teams. We're talking better quality, lower error rates, and even improved patient outcomes in healthcare settings.

The tricky part is that performance isn't always easy to define or measure.  Sometimes, it might take years to see the full impact, while other times it's as clear-cut as hitting a production target.  Building a high-performing team requires a certain level of trust and judgement.  Sometimes, you have to rely on employee feedback or customer satisfaction surveys to get a true picture of how well things are going.

Are you suggesting that there is no universally accepted mechanism for measuring performance?

Amy: Exactly. Measuring psychological safety is pretty straightforward with surveys. But performance? It's a different story. There's no one-size-fits-all approach. The best way to measure it depends on the industry and the specific situation. What "good performance" means can vary dramatically.

For example, a company might be laser-focused on maximising profits right now. But if they're neglecting research and development in the process, it could hurt them down the road. True performance is about long-term sustainability, not just short-term gains.

Let's talk about your latest book, "Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well." Have there been any surprising challenges to the ideas you presented? Or has the reception been mostly positive?

Amy: That's a great question. A lot of people, even spouses sometimes, hold this deep-seated belief that failure is just plain unacceptable. Most of us see failure as uniformly bad, whether it happens to us or someone on our team. But that thinking completely ignores the crucial role failure can play in learning, growth, and innovation. The key takeaway is that not all failures are created equal. There are actually good kinds of failures that we should be encouraging, not avoiding.

The right kind of wrong is when you have a well-thought-out idea or hypothesis that doesn't quite work out. These are the failures we should embrace... - Amy Edmondson 

One big misconception is the all-or-nothing view of failure. It's more nuanced than that. The "good" failures are the ones you encounter while exploring new territory, trying to reach a goal. These failures are well-calculated risks, not careless mistakes. They're based on a hypothesis, an experiment that didn't go as planned. In life and work, we experiment to succeed, but we also have to accept that we won't be right all the time.

The "right kind of wrong" is when you have a well-thought-out idea or hypothesis that doesn't quite work out. These are the failures we should embrace, learn from quickly, and even celebrate for the new insights they bring.

So, to answer your question directly, the book has definitely sparked some interesting conversations. It's been enlightening to see how people are starting to understand and appreciate the different faces of failure.

That's a valid point about the invisibility of intelligent failures. So, how can organisations and individuals move from fearing being wrong to actively embracing these "good" failures?

Amy: The thing is, most intelligent failures happen behind closed doors. By the time a company launches a successful product, it might seem like they got it right the first time. But the truth is, every successful innovation story is built on a foundation of failures – smart, calculated risks that didn't quite work out.

Think about James Dyson. He famously went through hundreds of prototypes before creating his iconic vacuum cleaner. Or WD-40 – the name itself tells you the story of 40 failed attempts before they hit the magic formula that turned them into a multi-billion dollar brand.

The key takeaway here is that experimentation, whether it's developing a product or reaching a personal goal, can lead to intelligent failures. And it's those who are comfortable being wrong in the pursuit of something new who ultimately succeed.

Our biggest hurdle? Our fear of being wrong. We often play it safe, sticking with the tried-and-true instead of taking calculated risks. This reluctance to experiment, which I explore in Chapter Five of  "Right Kind of Wrong," holds us back not just at work, but also from living a truly fulfilling life. It's a subtle resistance to learning, a preference for feeling like we already know everything, and a fear of being wrong that can stifle progress and innovation in all areas of our lives.

With so many challenges in today's workplace, how can we use "intelligent failures" to our advantage?

Amy: Take hybrid work, for example. It's a complex issue with no one-size-fits-all answer. But it's also a perfect opportunity for some smart experimentation.

Here's the key: these experiments don't have to be company-wide.  Leaders can tailor them to individual teams. The idea is to get everyone involved in figuring out what works best for their specific needs.

And let's be honest, hybrid work isn't just about personal preference. It's about what works best for the work itself. Sure, some people might prefer to work from home all the time. But research shows that can hinder collaboration, which is crucial for many tasks.

So, how do we address that? Leaders can design experiments with designated in-person days for key interactions. Maybe brainstorm sessions or project updates. This way, teams can experiment with different models and see what fosters the best collaboration.

The important part is to collect data throughout the process. What are your daily workflows like? How are you measuring success? By systematically examining this data, teams can identify the most effective work arrangements.

Ultimately, this experimentation can be a great way to re-energise your team around the company's mission.  When the focus shifts from individual preferences to the bigger picture – serving your customers and achieving your goals –  that's when people get excited and engaged.  It's about finding the sweet spot between individual needs and organisational goals through experimentation.

That's a lot to unpack! Can you give us some actionable advice for building a culture that embraces smart risks and learns from setbacks?

Amy: Absolutely! Here are three key tips:

Know your failures: Not all failures are created equal. We need to differentiate between "intelligent failures" – the ones that happen while we're pushing boundaries and trying new things – and basic mistakes that could have been avoided.  Make sure your team understands this difference.

Do smart experiments:  Encourage your team to brainstorm smart experiments that can help you reach your goals. But remember, creating a safe space to voice concerns is key.  When people feel comfortable speaking up about potential problems, we can prevent basic mistakes and take a more proactive approach.

Silence has consequences – missed trends, faulty products. Understanding this prompts people to speak up - Amy Edmondson

Talk it out:  Strong communication is vital.  Have thoughtful discussions with your team about the experiments you'll run, the hypotheses you're testing, and the timelines involved. This not only helps you make well-informed decisions, but it also ensures everyone's clear on the difference between intelligent failures and the things we can avoid.

We hear a lot about compassionate leadership these days, but then we see stories about leaders making harsh decisions, like firing people over Zoom. So, are we actually moving towards a more humane way of leading?

Amy: It's a good question, and honestly, the current situation is a bit messy. We see these erratic decisions, like hiring someone one day and then letting them go over video call the next.  This kind of chaos isn't sustainable.

The ideal leadership approach, in my view, starts with a clear and inspiring purpose. When people understand how their work contributes to something bigger than themselves, it's motivating. We all want to feel like we're part of a team, using our unique skills to achieve something together.  I've experienced this firsthand – collaborating with a team of experts led to a far better outcome than I could have achieved alone.

So, the starting point for effective leadership is creating an inspiring vision and a sense of shared purpose.  Compassion is important, but it's even more crucial to understand the challenges your team faces and to find creative solutions to those problems. The best leaders are the ones who inspire and enable their people to use their full potential.

There might not be a ton of evidence of this approach everywhere yet, but the current chaos shows us that a shift is needed. We need to move towards a more humane and effective style of leadership.

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Topics: Leadership, Strategic HR, #BigInterview, #FutureOfWork

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