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Harvard professor shares 3 types of failure that lead to success

Thinkers50 #1 Amy Edmondson on “Right Kind of Wrong”


Failure plagues business leaders and teams everywhere – yet it also holds the key to success.

This week we interviewed organisational psychologist Amy Edmondson whose new book “Right Kind of Wrong” won the Financial Times Schroeders Business Book of the Year.

The Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School explained there are three types of failure.

3 Types of Failure

·       Intelligent (e.g. a prototype that doesn't work. These are the “right kind of wrong” mistakes that help gather data for new products or projects)

·       Basic (e.g. the email sent to the wrong person, the missed meeting. These failures are those everyday occurrences that are often preventable)

·       Complex (e.g. a ship crashing into rocks. These failures are often a string of little mistakes that add up - they are also usually preventable, but they can turn into real monsters)

Empower employees to speak up

Renowned for her world-leading research into the concept of psychological safety, Amy drives home the point that everyone’s voice is mission critical and can change the game. 

That’s because many mistakes happen because warning signs were missed, ignored or downplayed.

Amy has linked blameless reporting of mistakes (i.e. a psychologically safe culture) with helping prevent an escalation of a basic mistake into a complex one.

As Toyota do with their famous Andon cable, which empowers factory floor staff to pause production when they spot something they perceive to be a threat to vehicle quality, all leaders should:

·       pay attention to ambiguous threats

·       ensure employees all levels of the organisation are willing to speak up without certainty

·       change their attitude to false alarms

Alert team members to expect mistakes

Basic mistakes are the most preventable. It's a case of "coulda, shoulda, woulda."

In so many cases, with hindsight, we admit we knew what we should have or could have done, we just didn’t use knowledge that was available because of inattention, neglect, or overconfidence.

Amy, who has been named by Thinkers50 as the most influential management thinker in the world, says leaders should keep people on high alert for mistakes by reminding them of the possibility or probability of failure.

·       A healthcare practitioner can remind their team that they work in a complex and error-prone environment

·       A pilot can admit to their flight crew that they’ve never flown a perfect flight yet, and ask for the crew's help in spotting (the inevitable) errors

Favour learning over knowing

This calls for leaders to be authentic and vulnerable. Their team is kept accountable for high quality work, but mistakes are not hidden away for fear of retribution.

Amy suggests businesses do as “Think Again” author and ReThinking podcast host Adam Grant suggests and learn a new way of thinking – one that favours learning over knowing.

This is essential for navigating life in an uncertain and changing world, where change is certain, and complex failures are on the rise. 

Amy suggests the next time we fail to pause to challenge the automatic thoughts that cause us pain and embarrassment and reframe those thoughts to allow ourselves to choose learning over knowing.

In other words, to give yourself permission to learn. 

Criteria for intelligent failure

So, let's revisit "intelligent failure." The criteria for a failure to be considered “intelligent,” which requires that the failure be:

·       In new territory. There’s not enough knowledge to produce a success

·       In pursuit of a goal. It requires learning and discovery

·       Hypothesis driven. You’ve done your homework

·       Small enough. It’s just big enough to learn from) 

Amy calls intelligent failures by another name: "beeping forward."

Beep forward

This term "beep forward" stems from an experiment Amy conducts with her students called "The Electric Maze."

Teams of students must cross a rug featuring a grid pattern of coloured squares. When stepped on, some squares beep and some remain silent. Teams are given a time limit to complete a crossing of the rug without making a single "beep."

Students invariably hestitate before stepping on a square in case it beeps. However, Amy says this is a curious waste of time. All stepped-on squares (beeping or not) feed back information to the team. Treating a "beep" as a mistake is ridiculous, as nobody knows which squares will beep or not.

The information is unknowable beforehand, so every step is a learning opportunity. The lesson for emerging leaders and current leaders is this: Is your team being encouraged, empowered, and enthused to "beep forward?"

See Adam Grant in person in 2024


If you've enjoyed Professor Amy Edmondson, make sure you don't miss seeing Adam Grant in-person to his insights on work-life, culture, discovering hidden potential in teams, and psychological safety 

His highly-anticipated Australian tour is in February  ADAM GRANT – LIVE: Unlock Hidden Potential & Transform WorkLife. Tickets are selling fast (Some categories SOLD OUT). 


About Adam Grant


Adam Grant is a renowned organisational psychologist, bestselling author, and global influencer. As Wharton's top-rated professor for seven consecutive years, his expertise in motivation, generosity, original thinking, and rethinking has made him a leading authority in his field.


His five New York Times bestselling books Think Again, Give and Take, Originals, Option B, and Power Moves have resonated with millions of readers in 45 languages. His latest book is Hidden Potential.


With hugely successful TED talks and his TED podcasts WorkLife and ReThinking, plus a substantial social media following and popular monthly newsletter, Adam Grant is one of the world's most inspiring thinkers and speakers.


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