My Favorite Mistake — 239: Lessons from Failures: Navigating Mistakes with Amy Edmondson, Author of ”Right Kind of Wrong”

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My guest for Episode #234 of the My Favorite Mistake podcast is Amy C. Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, renowned for her research on psychological safety over twenty years. 

Named by Thinkers50 in 2021 (And again here in 2023) as the #1 Management Thinker in the world, Edmondson’s Ted Talk “How to Turn a Group of Strangers into a Team” has been viewed over three million times. 

She received her PhD, AM, and AB from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is the author of books including The Fearless OrganizationTeaming, and her latest, Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well is available now.

Edmondson talks about the duality of mistakes – some that lead to massive successes and some that warrant a more mindful approach to growth and learning. Listen in as she recounts an endearing mistake from her personal life in the spectrum of Growth Mindset, discusses different types of failures and insights into how they can be reframed as opportunities for growth, exploration, and innovation.

Edmondson emphasizes the importance of Psychological Safety and the transformation from a ‘speak up’ culture into a ‘listen up’ culture within organizations.

Tune in today for an enlightening discussion on the fine line between reflecting and ruminating, along with Edmondson’s personal anecdotes from her writing journey.

Questions and Topics:

  • How do you see the connection between mistakes and failures? 
  • Sometimes failure is caused by outside factors?
  • As much as I try to be positive about mistakes and failure, I don’t love the phrase “fail early, fail often” — where do you think that phrase or concept misses the mark?
  • Psychological safety comes up A LOT in this podcast series when we talk about a culture of learning from mistakes… how do you define it?
  • Different types of failures — they’re not all created equally?
  • “Blameworthy” vs. “Praiseworthy” failures?
  • Why do organizations collectively blame people more than individuals blame others?
  • When leaders are super negative about mistakes… how is demanding perfection or say they must punish (or saying failure is NOT an option) counterproductive? 
  • Learning from failure is not as easy as it sounds? Reflecting without ruminating?
  • Mistakes in the book writing process?
  • Proofreading mistakes that slipped through?

Renowned Leadership Expert Amy E. Edmondson and Her Views on Psychological Safety and Failure
The Duality of Mistakes

Edmondson separates mistakes into three categories, drawing from her extensive research into the topic of failures and mistakes. These categories include examples from both her research and her personal life. Her favorite mistake to discuss lies within her research fields, and it features in her book “Right Kind of Wrong”.

This mistake recounts the story of a 26-year-old chef from Guangdong, China, named Lee Kum Sheung, who accidentally left his oysters to overcook. The result was a sticky, unexpectedly delicious sauce, which eventually resulted in the creation of the globally renowned oyster sauce. This accidental creation, stemming from a simple mistake, led his family to accumulate a fortune of over 17 billion.

This example serves to underline how seemingly negative mistakes can pave the way for groundbreaking innovations and successes. Edmondson argues this is contingent the individual’s curiosity and openness to turning these mishaps into new possibilities.

Growth Mindset in Mistake Processing

Edmondson is a firm advocate of Carol Dweck’s work on the concept of a growth mindset which she integrates into her own personal parenting approach. She shares a personal mistake in applying the growth mindset that prompted her to be more mindful in her interactions and praise. Based on the recommendation in Dweck’s work, one should focus on the process of learning and effort rather than praising the outcome. Edmondson experienced this first-hand when her son sought constructive feedback, revealing his understanding and demand for a growth mindset. This interaction highlighted unchecked mistakes and further enhanced Edmondson’s practice of the growth mindset.

Mistake and Failure: Understanding Their Connections

Regardless of their causes, many failures can be traced back to some form of mistake. However, not all failures are incidental to mistakes. In many cases, failures are the unfortunate and unexpected results of well-thought-out hypotheses or conscientiously set actions, particularly in new or unfamiliar territories.

Shaping Our Attitudes towards Failure

The view and treatment of failure in organizations often differ greatly from personal reactions. While individually, people recognize failure as a potent teacher, organizations frequently fail to translate this realization into practice. This gap is arguably a remanence of industrial-era mindsets, where expectations for results were rigidly predefined assuming minimal deviations.

Today, this mindset is not compatible with the realities and demands of modern work environments. The culture within organizations regarding failure should be more accepting, even encouraging, as it often leads to crucial learning experiences and innovations.

Edmondson proposes three distinct classifications for different types of failure which are

  • basic failure,
  • complex failure, and
  • intelligent failure.

While basic and complex failures epitomize blunders that can be potentially avoided, intelligent failures represent the unavoidable consequences of ventures into uncharted territories.

To approach failure constructively, Edmondson suggests assessing causes individually and categorizing them across a spectrum of blameworthiness to praiseworthiness. This objective evaluation reframes failures as potential opportunities for growth and discovery rather than undisputable mistakes.

The Importance of Psychological Safety

Psychological safety has been a consistent topic in many discussions around failure. Seen as a belief that one’s environment is safe for taking interpersonal risks such as admitting mistakes or sharing constructive feedback, psychological safety plays a vital role in creating a culture that is conducive to lesson-learning from mistakes. It is important to note that promoting a psychologically safe environment does not necessarily make dealing with these situations easier, but instead makes it more expected and acceptable.

Edmondson advocates for psychological safety in organizations, arguing that it is largely influenced by the leadership at various levels in the organization. She asserts that managers should promote open communication about failures and provide necessary reassurances to stimulate learning and improvements from these experiences.

The Emergence of a ‘Listen Up’ Culture

Edmondson makes a compelling argument for transforming a ‘speak up’ culture into a ‘listen up’ culture. The concept reframes the responsibility carelessly placed on the employees and champions the idea of creating a learning culture instead. In Edmondson’s view, such a culture encourages members of an organization to approach every interaction and experience as an opportunity to learn something new, not just from each other, but also from clients and the world at large.

By fostering a ‘listen up’ culture, organizations inspire their staff to engage more proactively, ultimately nourishing an environment where speaking up is not an obligation but a hallmark of positive engagement.

Balancing Between Reflecting and Ruminating

Edmondson sheds light on the fine line between productive reflecting and destructive rumination, particularly after a misstep. Reflecting facilitates learning and growth, whereas rumination can deepen feelings of shame and loneliness. This might lead individuals into a vicious cycle of unproductive and recurring thoughts. She suggests adopting an objective cognitive process which starts with a simple inquiry, “What happened?”.

This question encourages the individual to assess the situation without assigning blame. It allows them to consider the events dispassionately and extract valuable lessons, thereby directing focus to future improvement rather than past missteps. Reflecting is hence seen as a necessary mechanism for learning, allowing not just understanding but also creating meaningful change after a failure.

The Art and Errors of Writing

As a prolific author, Edmondson provides insights into the inevitable mistakes involved in the book writing process. She acknowledges how minor errors can slip through even after careful editing and proofreading. These small errors allow for reminders that even skilled authors and editors can make mistakes due to several factors such as fatigue and other biases.

She emphasizes the importance of continuous iteration when writing, pointing out that improvement is always possible. Each day spent on a manuscript can uncover not just grammatical errors, but instances of unclear or convoluted sentences that can be rewritten or simplified. The potential to continually refine is what makes writing both a challenging and rewarding process.

The Unavoidable Nature of Mistakes

Undoubtedly, slip-ups, both small and large, are a commonplace inevitable aspect of our personal and professional lives. They are subject to a multitude of variables, irrespective of the meticulous preventative measures we employ. A mistake can creep in due to oversight, assumptions, fatigue, or simply because of our inherent fallibility as humans.

Nurturing an Iterative Culture

In line with her teachings on the importance of learning, Edmondson highlights the benefits of fostering an iterative culture. Within this model, organizations are encouraged to continuously learn and adapt their practices based on insights from mistakes and successes alike.

The Decisiveness of Title Selection

Book titles hold an integral role in attracting potential readers, and, as revealed by Edmondson, the process of naming a book can also be prone to errors. She discloses the careful consideration behind her book title, “Right Kind of Wrong” and the decision to exclude the article ‘the’ for stylistic reasons. Despite noticing occasional erroneous inclusions, she garners a positive outlook from it, simply indicating that her work is being discussed and appreciated.

Embracing this spirit of learning and adaptation even for individuals in positions of authority can serve as a powerful example for others and help cultivate a culture that wider society can emulate. Essentially, mistakes aren’t necessarily a pitfall; they transform into stepping stones when approached with a psychologically safe, learning, and iterative mindset.