People are afraid of failure.

In fact, people tend to avoid failing publicly wherever possible, especially in the workplace.

This can result in people and projects trying to hide failure, or avoid trying things which challenge them at all so that they are less likely to fail. There are deep-rooted evolutionary reasons why we feel losses and negative experiences more strongly than successes, so we try and avoid the losses even if it means not experiencing potential successes as well.

Yet for a company to succeed, it needs to grow. And this requires it trying things which may bring large rewards, but also which may not work.

From a CEO perspective, this makes sense. If there is a portfolio of 10 projects, and one brings a return of 100x, then it does not matter if the other 9 fail. The challenge comes from the fact that nobody on the project teams wants to be one of the 9 which could fail, often leading to investment in projects which have no risk, but also no opportunity for significant innovation or growth.

For some types of projects, it is indeed possible to mitigate, and in some cases even prevent, failure from happening through extensive planning and experience. However, this only works for projects where all the variables are known, and there is a clear set of steps to follow which have previously been proven to work.

Innovation projects are different. It is impossible to plan out exactly what is required for success, and as a result many innovation projects cannot produce a business case for project approval.

How can we help leaders and teams become more willing to try things which may fail?

Understanding intelligent failure

In her new book “The Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well“, Professor Amy Edmondson (who you may remember from her groundbreaking work on Psychological Safety in teams) outlines her research into how not all failure is bad. In fact, some types of failure can be hugely beneficial.

It all comes down to the question of what we learn from our failures. In essence, are we experiencing what she calls an intelligent failure?

Watch this video below to find out more about her concept of “intelligent failure”.

According to a review of Edmondson’s ideas on HBR, intelligent failures have the following characteristics:

  • The experiment takes place in new territory. It starts with a goal that requires breaking new ground and is not just retreading work that’s already been done, such as a copycat drug or a technology that’s similar to another one on the market. “There is no new knowledge to produce the results you want,” she explains. “You can’t look up the recipe.”
  • The initiative presents a credible opportunity to advance toward a desired goal. The plan is thoughtful and intentional, offering a significant reward if successful. “If I’m at risk of failure and it’s pointless, why do it?” she says. “You’re just wasting time and resources.”
  • The experiment is “hypothesis-driven,” meaning it’s informed by present knowledge. Trying something new requires doing your homework and basing your actions on a reasonable expectation of success. “You have reason to believe it could work,” Edmondson says. “You’re not just engaging in random action.”
  • The failure is as small as it can be to produce the desired insights. Finally, the project does not risk excess resources in the event something goes wrong. “Nobody wants a bigger failure than necessary,” she says. Perhaps that means only pursuing a new initiative as a pilot project before launching it for real. “You want the new knowledge for the lowest price you can get it,” she says.

Reframing our views on failure

As Edmondson outlines in her thought piece in the Guardian earlier this year, it is also possible to reframe our thinking to make attempting challenges more rewarding:

Fortunately, failing well can be learned. We can replace fear and shame with curiosity and growth. To facilitate this shift, it helps to recognise the human tendency to play in order not to lose, which holds us back from new challenges – and choose instead to play to win. Playing to win comes with the risk of failing, but it also brings rewarding experiences and novel accomplishments.

We can also begin to think of failure less like a crisis, and more in the way that a scientist would think of a failed experiment. Every experiment begins with a hypothesis to be tried and tested.

Even if the experiment fails, it provides valuable information that can be used to improve the likelihood that the next attempt is closer to success.

After all, as Thomas Edison allegedly once said while trying to develop a new type of storage battery:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” 

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.