Amy Edmondson on the Right Kind of Wrong: Coaching in an Uncertain World

May 1, 2024 - 12:00pm to 12:30pm

As a push for innovation intensifies in many industries, the “fail fast, fail often” rhetoric has made failure downright fashionable. Here’s the problem: The sunny rhetoric in books, articles, and podcasts is too often simplistic and superficial. It fails (!) to make the crucial distinctions that separate good failure from bad, making it difficult for best practices to take hold in most organizations. Despite happy talk, most people would rather do anything but fail. Failure is fine in theory, and fine for other people, but difficult to accept for ourselves. Moreover, our efforts to learn from failure skew towards the self-serving and ego-preserving, as the pressure to look successful has never been greater. In organizations without psychological safety, these dynamics are exacerbated. 

Our session will focus on ideas and practices to help you think about and learn from failure. I describe three types of failure: basic, complex, and intelligent, and use this taxonomy to show how some people and organizations can fail well. Next, I present three awareness zones (self, situation, and system) as vital competencies for navigating uncertainty – and failure – to advance the mission of an individual, team, or organization. Only by embracing our fallibility, along with the fallibility of the organizations we create and work in, can we truly navigate these challenges effectively to thrive in an uncertain world.

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Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, a chair established to support the study of human interactions that lead to the creation of successful enterprises that contribute to the betterment of society.