Intelligent Failure: The Type of Failure That Drives Innovation

When you celebrate failure, you encourage innovation. Does your organization celebrate failure? If your answer is yes, I’d like to know what that looks like and how that’s going for you. If your answer is no, read on.

The degree to which your organization is prepared to challenge the status quo, and take action on ideas that do so, is determined by how safe people feel expressing themselves within their teams. Google did some research a few years ago on the effectiveness of teams. They found that there are 5 factors that determine team effectiveness: psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and impact.

The first one, psychological safety, is the number one factor that impacts team effectiveness. Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception, of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risks. In other words, they believe it’s safe to take risks within their team and they don’t risk being labeled as ignorant, incompetent, negative or disruptive. On teams with high psychological safety, teammates feel comfortable taking risks around fellow team members, seeking differing opinions and resolving interpersonal conflict when it comes up.

But does that mean that a psychologically safe environment supports and encourages failure? No.

3 types of failure

According to Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization, it depends on the type of failure; and there are 3 types:

  1. Preventable failure. This happens when people screw up in a way that has negative repercussions; and that could have been prevented. Preventable failure warrants punishment.
  2. Complex failure. These happen when a surprise event leads to an unpredictable outcome. When these failures happen, learn from them, figure out how you can develope early warning systems.
  3. Intelligent failure. Here, the right answer is unknown and unknowable in advance. The only mistake here is taking too long or spending too much money to figure out what went wrong. This type of failure, should be celebrated.

Failure isn’t the goal for innovation; it is the means. I know this isn’t what you want to hear. You want me to tell you that there’s a 5 step template that delivers results without a hitch; no headaches, no mistakes, no money and time lost. Sorry, there’s isn’t one. There’s no innovation cheat code. Failure and innovation are inseparable twins; get over it.

There is no innovation without experimentation

I’ve failed. I’ve spent time on projects that I knew were rigged to fail. I’ve lost money too. No biggie. It’s all part of the process. You have to experiment to fail smart and reduce the number of headaches, and find answers to the unknowns. No amount of planning will help you avoid experimentation, because the more unknowns there are the less planning is effective.

Let me put it to you this way: the further into the future see, the less answers you have. Therefore, questions and experiments increase in value when faced with unknowns.

With that said, there is no innovation without experimentation. So, as a leader encourage people to speak up and challenge the status quo. Support their ideas when confronted with unknowns, encourage them to ask interesting questions that will lead to answers. Remove the obstacles to that will help move ideas forward. And remember; experimentation is the shortest path to innovation.


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