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Intelligent failure, that’s how you do it

‘Making mistakes is allowed’ is a popular management motto. But one mistake is not the other. Some mistakes are right and others are just wrong. Last week I chaired a webinar with Harvard Prof Amy Edmondson. She presented a practical taxonomy with three types of failure.

1) Simple failure. This involves routine work – such as the production of cars – where we know well what the intention is, and sometimes make mistakes. For example, because our attention wanes or because we are stubborn. We would like to avoid these types of mistakes. Usually it is quite possible to find the cause and fix the problem. For example, by refining the process or by better training employees.

2) Complex failure. This type of failure occurs in more uncertain situations, with new combinations of people and problems. Think of the emergency department in a hospital where a patient presents with complicated symptoms during the weekend. Or a fast-growing start-up. It is simply not possible to avoid all mistakes in these situations. But preventing major blunders is possible, says Edmondson. You do that by being constantly alert; by quickly identifying and addressing minor errors.

3) Intelligent failure. This is about deliberate failure as we explore new territory. You find this type of failure in R&D departments and in other situations where we just don’t know the right way to do something yet. We are working on innovation and that involves a process of trial and error. Preferably fast, small-scale and cheap.

An important lesson from Edmondson: A good experiment is designed to fail

An important lesson from Edmondson: A good experiment is designed to fail. You have clear assumptions that you want to test and try to undermine. In companies, however, pilot projects are often set up to succeed, to prove to senior management that a new product or approach is worth investing in. So test runs are carried out under optimal rather than realistic conditions. Our desire for success works against us in such a case. Because if you eventually roll out your plan on a large scale, you will still be confronted with the hard facts. Only later and at a higher price.

According to Edmondson, the trick is to prevent accidents and celebrate discoveries. According to her, a smart failure strategy looks like this:

– Reduce simple mistakes. Make sure you have the basics in your organization in order, with smart procedures and well-trained people;

– Anticipate and respond to complex errors. Reliable organizations know that all kinds of things can go wrong in uncertain situations and are therefore on top of it.

– Promote intelligent errors. Encourage employees to learn through small experiments.

Finally, previous research by Edmondson shows that most errors in work environments are not to blame, but are often treated as such. It is logical that many defects and mistakes never reach the management. According to her, an important reason that we learn far less from our mistakes than we could.

Ben Tiggelaar writes weekly about personal leadership, work and management.

Intelligent failure, that’s how you do it
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