secret > Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well

The key elements of the book
In her previous book, Fearless Organizations (Angeli, 2020), Amy Edmondson had shown how a team’s psychological safety condition was positively correlated with its performance. When in a team, in order to meet pressing and demanding demands, we help each other, include and value diversity, approach error fruitfully, and can rely on open dialogue (the four resignations from which Psychological Safety is fueled), not only do we achieve excellent results, but we do so while maintaining a good level of well-being and developing learning and innovation.

In a world characterized by interdependence and speed of change, the ability to learn is vital to survival of people as well as businesses. Learning means venturing into uncharted territories, where error and failure are more the rule than the exception: here, therefore, our relationship with error, at the individual level before even the team level, becomes crucial. And while it is now clear the fact that error is inevitable when we experiment, this does not mean that we go into it lightly, almost seeking it out, nor that we know how to use it to develop learning for ourselves and others. Yet that is precisely what is useful today: using failure as an element of learning and development, even to fail less. 

Was there a need for a whole book to talk about it? Yes, for a number of reasons, including:

– Bringing clarity: Edmondson does not assert that “failing is good” at all. Suggested by slogans like “fail fast, fail often,” we may think that failing is always okay anyway and that we can loosen our guard on controls. On the contrary, Edmondson reminds us that some mistakes are bad, and that, whether tragic or harmless, they can and should be reduced. 

– Because it is a theme that affects us all indiscriminately: “errare humanum est” the ancients said, error and consequently failure are elements that inevitably characterize everyone’s experience. What makes the difference is mainly what we do with failures and mistakes, so that we do not become “devilish” by persevering, but learn and evolve.

– Because the subject is very complex and cannot be addressed with simple management “recipes.” In fact, although all* of us make mistakes and nobody tends to have a good relationship with error, for emotional, cultural and structural reasons. It is therefore necessary to intervene at all three levels to turn failure into an opportunity for development.

Through numerous practical examples, drawn from both personal experience and the news (the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion on Feb. 1, 2003, the air disasters of the two Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in 2018 and 2019, the Torrey Canyon oil tanker sinking in 1967, among others), Edmondson shows us how to manage the “right kind” of failures and minimize those to be avoided, acting both on systems and tools, and -first of all – on each of us’ mental approach to error. And this I think is one of the key points: change starts with us. And a change is possible. And Edmondson shows us step by step how to do it.

Quotes

  • Learning from failure is not nearly as easy as it sounds. (…) If we want to go beyond superficial lessons, we need to jettison a few outdated cultural beliefs and stereotypical notions of success. We need to accept ourselves as fallible human beings and take it from there (p 18).
  • Failing well is hard for three reasons: aversion, confusion and fear (p 25).
  • It starts with curiosity. Elite failure practitioners seem to be driven by a desire to understand the world around them (p 70).
  • Fostering a healthy attitude about human fallibility is the first and possibly most important step for helping us catch and correct mistakes. But to complement and support these behavioral practices, implementing failure prevention systems can dramatically increase your chances of success (p 112).
  • Systems, rather than individuals, produce consequential failures…It (…) helps us to focus on reducing failure by changing the system rather than by changing or replacing an individual who works in a faulty system (p 144).
  • We just have to learn a new way of thinking – one that favors learning over knowing (p 169)
  • Mastering the science of failing well must therefore start with looking at ourselves. Self awareness is the first, and most vital, of the three competencies we need to develop. The other two, situation awareness (…) with system awareness immediately following, can only be developed when we give ourselves permission to keep learning (p 197).

Structure and content
The book is divided in two parts, both aimed at addressing what prevents the “right kind” of failure: aversion, confusion and fear. 

The first part is mainly devoted to dispelling confusion: through numerous examples, diagrams and explanations, Edmondson clarifies the characteristics and differences of the so-called “archetypes” of failure (basic, complex and intelligent errors), highlights the role that context plays in characterizing them, and shows how it is possible, in all three cases, to gain benefits if we deal with them methodically and intentionally. This also helps us decrease our aversion to failure, at least on a rational level. 

All the more aversion and fear are addressed in the second part, in which Edmondson illustrates how to take practical action to develop the three skills needed to “fail the right way”: self-awareness, context-awareness, and system-level situational awareness. Again, numerous examples are introduced here to understand the concepts and, more importantly, to suggest concretely how to go about developing the skills, to the point that some people in their reviews refer to this book as a self-help manual. 

Also very interesting are the references that Edmondson makes to the research and guidance of other scholars of learning, leadership and personal development (e.g., Carol Dweck, Bréne Brown, Daniel Kahnemann, Chris Argyris) which allow for a broad and solid framework to the arguments, and underline how one cannot confine the topic within the “business” literature, because it actually tells about the Human Being, in its mechanisms of growth, relationship, learning and expression (or not) of its potential. In summary, it is easy to see how changing our approach to error is not only useful and necessary to meet the challenges of today’s market and world, but above all it becomes a means of unlocking our energy and potential and living more lightly and effectively in everyday life.

Conclusion
Like Fearless Organizations, this text has the virtue of being fluent, interesting and clear. It may therefore appear “lighter” than it is: the simplicity of the language, the smiling and at times humorous style, and the extensive use of examples and anecdotes manage to make complex concepts easy, and to hold together a vast and profound web of themes that are indeed interconnected, but which we often allocate to different areas of study (economics, management, interpersonal relations, neuroscience, emotional intelligence…). It may be worthwhile, therefore, to go over it several times, initially to understand how, given that “to make mistake is human,” we all have the opportunity to move from fear of error to management of error, gaining great benefits. Next, to grasp specifically which, among the very large number of cues, tools and processes proposed, are right for us to begin, alone or with our team, to “fail the right way.”