March 25, 2024

Learning how to encourage the right kind of wrong

By Paul Laughlin

Having just read the Financial Times Business Book of the Year, The right kind of wrong” by Prof. Amy Edmondson, I can see why it won. It is that rare blend of a well-researched business book that is also readily applicable and well-written. Unlike most non-fiction books that I read, I was sorry when it was over, a feeling I normally reserve for the end of an engaging novel. It is at times personal, vulnerable, touching, scary, shocking & hilarious. Because it engages with us as we are, fallible human beings trying to flourish in a complex fast fast-changing world.

Amy Edmondson may be familiar to many business leaders as she is the leading academic light behind the term ‘psychological safety’. Since her most famous book, “The Fearless Organisation: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace”, she has continued to both work with organisations & lecture at Harvard. This book is a product of both those endeavours. From helping senior leaders or advising start-ups to continuing to study psychological safety and failures. This book shares the insights and models she has developed along the way to help all leaders encourage the right kind of failure and avoid the rest.

Categorising your Failures

So what can you expect to find in Amy’s latest book? There are plenty of real-world example of failure and both positive and negative responses to that experience. Although there are more practical case studies (from a wide range of sectors), she also includes plenty of academic research to evidence her theories. Plus simple frameworks to help you generalise that understanding.

After an engagingly personal introduction, Part One of this book introduces us to 3 different types of failure. Amy makes a convincing case for why the simplistic raving about “fail fast” coming from Silicon Valley can mislead us. Before we are enthusiastic we need to better understand the type of failure. Was it a Basic, Complex or Intelligent Failure (the latter is the ‘right kind of wrong’)? In successive chapters, she brings to life Basic, Complex verse Intelligent failures with case study examples. This helps to bring to life the pitfalls and the important differences.

Part Two of this book then turns our attention to what we do differently to mitigate more such failures in future. In three chapters she explains how awareness at three different levels can serve us in spotting and avoiding potential failures. The first is self-awareness, Amy shares how self-reflection, humility, honesty and curiosity can all help us. The second level is situation awareness, becoming better aware of the risks of your environment, context & processes. Finally, she outlines how system-awareness (systems thinking) can help us cope better in a complex fast-changing world. Zooming out to spot the risks of the system as a whole can help us.

What did I take from this book?

Beyond being an enjoyable read, this book was a useful reminder of some habits and processes that help me and need to be sustained. This applies not only to my working life. My volunteering, family and home life can also benefit and I’m sure many others will find similar lessons for their lives.

I was also struck as I read through this book how many insights that have been shared previously on this blog helped as parts of the whole. Amy addresses the risks of becoming too familiar/complacent with our work, so needing to ‘wake up’ from the risks of living on auto-pilot. I have lost count of the number of times the classic text “The Checklist Manifesto” has been recommended by others and it stars here too. So too does the need for effective habits/rituals, planning and review as well as the optimism of a growth mindset when trying new things.

Amy ends her book with a chapter to help us all. She picks up on Maxie Maultsby’s much-praised term “Fallible Human Beings” and shares tips for ‘failing well’. They include advice for each of us and guidance for leaders seeking to establish a better culture. The recommendations for individuals include practices of persistence, reflection, accountability and saying you’re sorry. Recommendations for building a healthy failure culture include: calling attention to the context; encouraging failure sharing; rewarding the right kind of wrong.

Why is this book relevant for data leaders?

My motivation in reading and reviewing this book was some familiar challenges that I hear from data leaders. Many struggle with falling off either side of what feels like a tightrope to walk in this regard. On the one side is the risk of being so keen to encourage ‘fail fast’ that teams become shoddy & careless. But the other side is the risk of stifling innovation through accountability and performance management that does not reward trying new things.

Amy’s final chapter advice which I shared above feels particularly relevant here. Her practical tips are built upon the insights from earlier in this book. She recommends that leaders:

  • Call attention to context (e.g. if data or impact are inherently risky)
  • Encourage failure sharing (like retrospectives on what did we learn or avoid?)
  • Reward the right kind of wrong (celebrate heroic failures of innovation)
  • Learn to discern (share insights on kinds of failure & when to act)

Because it is such a practical book, full of personal stories of failure and triumph (often both for the same person), I recommend it to all leaders. Especially in Data Science teams it should help leaders establish an understanding of failure and responsibility that is prudent & nurtures innovation. The growing number of women leading such teams may also be encouraged by the many stories shared of female leaders & innovators. Many were new to me & their stories were well worth hearing. Thank you Amy for such an engaging and timely book.