How to Fail Right


HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR On Strategy, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock new ways of doing business. We all know Silicon Valley’s mantra — fail fast, fail often. But when is it okay to fail in the real world? Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson says it depends on HOW and WHY you fail. Edmonson is an expert on psychological safety, and she’s the author of the book, Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well. In this episode, you’ll learn the difference between good and bad types of failures. One has to do with experimentation, while the other is rooted in inattention or lack of training. Edmonson also explains the downsides of not experimenting enough when your team fears failure. AND she explores the tension between paying close attention to individual employees’ needs and those of the team and organization. This episode originally aired as part of HBR’s New World of Work video series in July 2023. Here it is.

ADI IGNATIUS: All right. So, if you recognize that funky guitar riff, that’s right, this is Harvard Business Review’s The New World of Work. I am Adi Ignatius, Editor-in-Chief of HBR, and we are back with a new season of The New World of Work.  So, each week, we will– I’ll be interviewing a CEO, a thought leader, somebody interesting who can inspire us, can educate us on some of the changing dynamics of the workplace. There are a lot of big issues that come up that we’re all facing. I think all of us, whether we’re in big companies, small companies, whether we’re in the US or somewhere else. So, we want to bring in people, have conversations that we hope will help you as you think about how to make your company better, how to strengthen your career. We have a great guest today. She is Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor who is probably best known for her work on psychological safety in the workplace. So, Amy, welcome to The New World of Work.

AMY EDMONDSON: Great to be here, Adi. Thanks for having me.

ADI IGNATIUS: So, just before we start, to our audience, I’m going to be talking to Amy, we would love to take audience questions later. Put them into the chat and we’ll try to get to as many as possible.  Quickly, let me just say, if you’re an HBR subscriber watching this, you can head to to sign up for The New World of Work, which is an email newsletter where I will offer an inside look at each of these interviews and talk about some of the ideas that came out of them. So that’s a little pressure, Amy, to produce newsletter-worthy content today.

AMY EDMONDSON: Pressure’s on.

ADI IGNATIUS: I know you could do that. So, all right, so your book is about failure, primarily about failure. Failure, let’s start there. I was under the impression that we come around that we all got that failure is noble and not shameful and provides useful learning lessons, but you’re writing a book that seems to be saying that we need to think hard and maybe differently about failure. So, talk about what you’re trying to accomplish with this book and why you’re taking on this topic.

AMY EDMONDSON: Well, I was with you, and then I poked around and realized that the truth is, many people were still confused about failure. And so there is a lot of happy talk about failure out there. There’s the virtual mantra of Silicon Valley, fail fast, fail often. Failure is good, let’s learn from failure, let’s have failure parties, let’s have failure resumes, and so forth. And, the truth is, the future of work will be riddled with failure. We can’t just wish it away even if we wanted to, we have to work with it. But I think no one can really take to heart the happy talk about failure unless they have a coherent framework. So, you can think of it as the two camps, the Silicon Valley fail fast, fail often, and then the other camp, which is right, I live in the real world, failure is not an option. And they’re both right, or they’re both partially right. But neither is terribly helpful nor context-specific.  And so, I think the happy talk, when it’s not qualified with a coherent way of making distinctions between the good kind of failure and the not so good kind, is possibly more destructive than helpful. It drives the honest conversation underground. So, I think it’s important to talk about the kinds of failure for which we really should be welcoming it with open arms and the kinds where we maybe shouldn’t.

ADI IGNATIUS: So, I think the best thing you can say about failure is, if you have a culture that permits failure, that tolerates failure, it means you’re stretching, you’re pushing, you’re trying to innovate, you’re trying to do things that are difficult. And I think of that as part of the definition of what is a digital company. A digital company experiments frequently and tries and fails and is able to tolerate failure.  But I’m interested, though– and I would guess if you talk to most companies, they’d say, yeah, we do that. That’s the culture we have. We didn’t used to, but we do that. So I want to push you a little bit more on– you seem to– if I hear you, it seems to be saying that’s the rhetoric, that’s the happy talk, but in reality, that’s not really how the world works.

AMY EDMONDSON: Yeah. I mean, first of all, it’s not how most incentives are set up. I’m not saying uniformly that’s the case, but most of the time, failure is not rewarded in organizations, and people would rather do anything but fail. And so I think part of the problem– and you’re right.  Maybe a better way to talk about this is not as failure, but as experimentation. We have to be very pro-experimentation. But we have to be pro-smart experiments. And I think smart failures are the result of smart experiments. And smart experiments are ones that happen in new territory.  Honestly, if you can look up the answer, find the recipe, find the blueprint, please do. No need to experiment. New territory in pursuit of a goal that’s consistent with the value proposition of the organization. With a hypothesis– you’ve done your homework. And, importantly, as small as possible.  So, that those are the kinds of both experiments and failures we must welcome with open arms. They are discoveries and they allow us to figure out quickly what to try next. But a portion of the book is devoted to, what do we know about best practices for failure-proofing that which can be failure-proofed? The activities, the operations in your company that are in known territory are ones that should be well-set up to make failure extremely rare.

ADI IGNATIUS: Are there industries that do not tolerate failure? I was thinking, I don’t know, airline pilots. I mean, you don’t really want them to fail. This isn’t merely a rhetorical question. Are there industries that really don’t tolerate failure and can you look at them and say, you actually can get interesting results if you have that kind of policy?

AMY EDMONDSON: Well, let’s start with airlines because clearly none of us want them to be comfortable with failure. And yet, I think the reason why airlines have an extraordinary record of success and safety is because they’re willing and able to talk about failure.  So, the failures that they do tolerate happen in the simulator. That there’s training, there’s a lot of emphasis on speaking up early to prevent something worse from happening. So, this is not– their safety record does not come from being intolerant of failure, but rather, being intolerant of major accidents.  Therefore, we have to be very tolerant of the reality of human error so that we can catch and correct, so that we can train, so that we can allow people to take the kind of risks and experiments we were just talking about in safe settings like the simulator, not in the execution of the real duties.  But I don’t think it’s possible to say– to describe industries in the way your question implies. I think there’s variation across companies. So, pick an industry, fast-moving consumer goods. It’s going to be not that hard to find differences in cultural failure tolerance within those industries across companies.  So, a more sensible way to put that is that some companies, I think, are doing better than others in having a healthy tolerance of intelligent failure.

ADI IGNATIUS: Again, I’m Adi Ignatius, Editor of Harvard Business Review. My guest is Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School. If you have questions for Amy, put them in the chat and we’ll try to get to some later.  So, I don’t want to just talk about failure, but I do have a couple more questions. And you started to talk about, I guess– you didn’t use the term, but what a productive failure might look like. But you did mention that there are good and bad failures, and I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about what’s the difference and how does one try to make sure their failures are the good kind?

AMY EDMONDSON: Sure. Well, in known territory where we have a process or a formula for getting the result we want, it’s best practice to use that process, use that formula, and get the result we want. So, when a Citibank employee a number of years ago accidentally made a small human error and accidentally wired $800 million to a client that shouldn’t have received it, that was a basic unproductive failure. Turns out, they were not even able to get the money back. So not celebrating that kind of failure. And you’re right. A productive failure is one where we get new and useful knowledge, new knowledge that helps us go forward in creating the kind of value we’re trying to create in our market for our customers. So, we discovered something that we could not have discovered without trying it, without the experiment.

ADI IGNATIUS: And would you recommend that there’d be an elaborate postmortem? I mean, I think the military– or whatever you think about the military, they’re very focused on doing detailed postmortem. What happened, what went wrong, why? Presumably to learn from that and not have it happen again. Do you believe in that, doing a kind of extensive postmortem on something that didn’t work out?

AMY EDMONDSON: Absolutely. I mean– and I think the word extensive, probably a better word is thorough. It is not the case that a postmortem has to take inordinate amounts of time, but it should be thorough.  It should be analytical and look carefully at the different facets of the failure to understand accurately what happened and why for the express purpose of preventing that exact failure from happening ever again. So, a failure, even an intelligent failure in new territory, new discovery is no longer intelligent the second time it happens.

ADI IGNATIUS: I want to shift gears a little bit and talk more generally about the workplace. Really, the question is, are we OK? You wrote a recent piece in Harvard Business Review that suggested maybe things are not so great. That the relatively low levels of engagement and productivity, high rates of burnout, we can speculate as to why that’s true, but is that accurate? I mean, obviously it’s hard to generalize, but are we suffering? And if so, how do we respond to that as managers?

AMY EDMONDSON: Well, I don’t have a systematic worldwide data set from which I can make solid inferences about how people are doing. My impression comes from informal conversations, qualitative research, reading HBR and so many other outlets to see how people are doing. So really, in a way, I’m commenting on the conversation in HBR and so many other business media contexts, maybe LinkedIn and elsewhere. And one thing I think I can say for sure is that the anxiety is real. And people are worried about the future. They’re worried about it on so many fronts. They’re worried about climate change, they’re worried about AI, they’re worried about burnout, as you mentioned, I’ll come back to burnout.  But that anxiety tends to push us toward a retreat to our individual corner and people start to think, am I going to be OK? And they become more focused on their own well-being than on the health of the team or health of the organization.  And that gives rise to a real potential for erosion, even vicious cycles where organizations find themselves in the trap of responding to requests and issues in isolation one by one. And so, it doesn’t– we need a sort of more holistic way of thinking about it.  And I see limited evidence of companies being at least described as pausing to think about the larger picture, their value proposition, what it implies for how they must be structured and led to get the necessary work done, and how to organize that work with all its variety and variable needs in a kind of thoughtful way, and how to inspire and motivate people to do it well.  So, let me just briefly go to the burnout issue because there actually has been some recent data, some studies that have caught my eye showing that the burnout is systematically higher when psychological safety is lower.  So, for instance, it seems to me that some portion of the burnout is associated with loneliness and isolation. I think it’s fair to say that we can endure many challenges when we feel genuinely that we’re in it together, that we’re connected and engaged with our colleagues in trying to navigate these challenges.

ADI IGNATIUS: Yeah. So there are a number of responses to that, and the idea that there’s a, I don’t know, a loneliness trend or epidemic or something like that, I mean, one can’t help but think, OK, is some of this related to the pandemic, which, for many of us, broke up teams, created work environments with work from home that, in many ways, is fantastic for people who are balancing their work and life.  It must take a toll at the same time on something, on maybe the teaming imperative that you’ve written about. Is that– I mean, is that your hunch that the pandemic and our response to it is maybe contributing to this?

AMY EDMONDSON: Yeah, I do think the pandemic took a toll on us– on all of us. And we’re– it created such an obvious uncertainty, that we– it was such an obvious disruption. It wasn’t the gradual shifts that we’re normally used to. It was a very abrupt shift. And it gave rise to all these really wonderful and I think productive experiments on different work arrangements. And now it’s time for a very systematic assessment of what’s working and what isn’t.  And it can’t be incremental, and it can’t be– and it can’t also be based on what do people say they want? Because oftentimes what we say we want is not actually what we need or truly want in the longer-term bigger picture to get where we need and want to go.

ADI IGNATIUS: Yeah. I mean, you talked a second ago about trying to have a comprehensive policy and approach. That– I mean, if I heard you right, not dealing with people always uniquely individually. But that’s sort of the nature of management now. I mean, it seems to me that– and I think the pandemic contributed to that for a lot of people, but we’ve written about this. That suddenly, managers are expected to be, in addition to everything else, almost like psychiatrists. There’s an openness for people to share their personal situations, challenges, problems, and that it’s the role of the manager increasingly to engage with that in an intelligent way.  So, you end up where management becomes hyper-personalized, but I think maybe you’re already on to the risk, which is losing the sense of the teaming and the collective effort.

AMY EDMONDSON: It’s almost as if we’ve lost sight of tensions and trade-offs. I mean, there will always be a tension between “me” and “we.” There will always be a tension between my desires in the moment and my aspirations over the long-term. And I’d– we can think of so many examples of that.  If you ask me what I want, pay me infinitely and don’t ask me to do anything and let me eat ice cream all day, but that’s not going to get me where I really, really need to go and want to go. I want to make a difference.  And I think when we– I think we’re right now in a moment of not helping people value the collective. I mean, why– as human beings, we’re social creatures. That’s part of it, but it’s also, we want to matter. We want to matter to others, we want to matter in some way that’s larger than ourselves and our hedonistic desires.  And to matter, I think we have– you could think of it in a way, in an old-fashioned management theory way of the theory of the firm. If markets worked by themselves, we would just have only contractors doing tasks and it would be efficient, it would be sensible, it would be logical.  But it doesn’t work because a lot of the work we have to do is inherently collaborative and dynamically so. And it isn’t it isn’t easily parceled out dividing and conquering it style. It requires us to really work together in meaningful ways.  The good news is, that can be a very engaging, rewarding, exciting experience. The bad news is, it’s not easy to manage, but I think we can go down that rabbit hole of each person has to be managed differently, each person– you’re almost a psychiatrist to that person, versus let’s step back and rethink, how do we design our activities, our operations so that we create the most value for those we serve?

ADI IGNATIUS: Yeah, I love that, and I have to say that I don’t think companies have figured that out yet. It’s funny, the disruption of COVID, I think, opened our eyes to some flexibility, but I think the things you’re putting your finger on, we’re trying to solve for that, and I think– I think a lot of us haven’t yet and need to keep experimenting.  So, we’re in this age of anxiety where there’s just– as we said, there’s burnout and all that. And then you throw on top of that AI, open AI– generative AI and a fear– possibly irrational, possibly not– that generative AI will be able to do all of our jobs as well or almost as well at almost no cost than what we can do now.  I assume you haven’t done quantitative research, but qualitatively, what’s your advice for people? As open– mean as generative AI enters the workplace at every level and the possibilities become clearer and clearer, what’s your advice, I guess, to managers and/or employees like how to cope with this, not get flattened by it, but and maybe benefit from it?

AMY EDMONDSON: Well, as you indicated, it’s a little outside my wheelhouse except for the effects on people and culture. And so, I speak from the perspective of someone listening at the margins to the many conversations in work and social gatherings alike and media. And I think you’re right.  I think fear is the dominant emotion. That certainly, some are excited, some are super-optimistic about the amazing changes to come. But I think casually, I hear more fear than optimism. The truth is, we need both. We need that– this is here. We need some sort of positive, thoughtful, design-oriented approaches to experiment and figure out what’s going to work. But I don’t think they’re going to be simple solutions to the dramatic shakeup of what’s possible.

ADI IGNATIUS: So, let’s go to some audience questions because we do we do have them coming in. We have a large and engaged audience, and so let’s hear what they have to say. So, here’s a question from Omar from Monterrey in Mexico. And the question is, what kind of metrics can be used to measure smart failures?

AMY EDMONDSON: [LAUGHS] Well, my first response is, that’s a good idea to have metrics. And one of the things that I’ve spent the most time studying is how many failures just don’t even get the chance to be measured because people don’t speak up about them. And s,o this– in fact, this was how I got into this whole topic in the first place, was the discovery of dramatic differences across groups even within the same organization in their willingness to speak up about things that go wrong rather than just things that go right. So, here’s the challenge more broadly than just people not necessarily speaking up. The challenge is the category of intelligent failure covers vast territory. So, I think the metrics have to be tailored to the context, and let me illustrate vast territory. A well-run clinical trial on a new cancer drug is an intelligent failure when it turns out it doesn’t have the efficacy that we hoped. It was in new territory, there was no other way to find out but do a clinical trial. It’s the right size, it’s no bigger than it has to be. It’s hypothesis-driven in pursuit of a goal. But so is a really bad blind date. Intelligent failure. Maybe your friend thought you’d like each other. You are willing to go out and have a coffee. Smallest possible new territory in pursuit of a goal, all the rest. So, a bad blind date and a failed clinical trial are clearly apples and oranges, yet they both qualify under the category.  So, I think the best way to answer the measurement question is, let’s make sure the criteria are adhered to, and then let’s think about what’s the right frequency given the work we’re trying to do of intelligent failures?  Another way to say that is, what’s the right frequency of experimentation? How often should we be trying new things, to push the envelope, to discover new possibilities, even to discover efficiencies? And are we doing that often enough? And the answer is usually no because most of us would rather succeed than fail and most of us would rather keep doing what we’re doing because we’re kind of good at it.

ADI IGNATIUS: So, here’s another question along those lines. This is from Mohammed in Pakistan. And this is sort of a classic, and you’ve thought about this a lot and you’ve answered this before, but I think your words will be useful for our audience. So, the question is, employees may be hesitant to offer feedback that could be perceived as negative, which can impede professional development, hinder organizational progress. How does one tackle the situation?

AMY EDMONDSON: Such a good question, and it’s and it’s a good question because it’s true. We are very reluctant to do things– to speak up with negative or difficult information, because frankly, it will always be easier not to. It will always be easier to hold back than to speak up candidly and forthrightly about something that you hope could be made better.  So, the way to make this very difficult thing easier is to set the stage by pointing out how valuable it is. Periodically– I would say even frequently, refer to the fact that we need to do this hard thing, we need to do it well if we want to be as good as we can, say, as a team, but even individuals who have the ambition to grow and develop in their roles and in their careers have to train themselves to be willing to do this and receive it because of its value.  So, we’ve got to call attention to its value, we’ve got to call attention to the fact that it’s hard, and then do it anyway and support each other.

ADI IGNATIUS: Another question. This is from Don from Calgary in Canada. So, if it’s true that we learn acutely from mistakes, what are some ways to encourage permission from our leaders who may be risk-averse in their constitution?

AMY EDMONDSON: Sure. And we’re all risk-averse, and maybe leaders even more than others, maybe not. But the– first of all, I make a distinction between mistakes and failures. Now I’m not anti-mistake because I’m a human being and I make them, we all do.  But a mistake– a mistake is not the same thing as a failure. A failure is something that went wrong that we wish were otherwise. A mistake is a deviation from a known practice. Now that could happen because of inattention, because of lack of training, because of exhaustion, you name it.  But I think it’s helpful for leaders– and others, for that matter– to talk about the reality that we will make mistakes– again, because we’re human. The very best practice is not ever make a mistake, it’s to catch and correct them quickly. And then also to make that distinction between– smart experiment’s a new territory that we also want to see more of because it’s the secret to future value creation, and we welcome those, too.

ADI IGNATIUS: So then further to that, and here’s a question from Benny from California. So what’s the best way to speak to subordinates after a failure to boost morale, communicate that this was a good failure, it’s OK?

AMY EDMONDSON: I’m going to say honestly. So, you can be honest about, wow, this was disappointing for all of us. And let’s get everything we can out of it. Let’s learn as much as possible. And in fact, given that something substantial that goes wrong nearly always has multifaceted aspects to it, it’s helpful to have a thoughtful and data-driven conversation about what happened. Not who did it, what happened.  So, we may go around the team, what did you see? And we’re really looking for what happened, what contributed to that, what– and that’s both commission and omission, things that you did that may have contributed, things that you didn’t do that may have helped. And so, it’s a thoughtful deliberately learning-oriented conversation designed to help us be better next time.

ADI IGNATIUS: Yeah. So, we’ve got a little bit more time, and I want to– this is a question for me. And when we were touting this episode, I said I would ask you about how to re-energize your team these days. And we’ve talked about that’s always a challenge. We’ve talked about some of the external reasons why. Maybe people are relatively burned out, maybe productivity is down, et cetera.  So, what are some thoughts? How do we re-energize our team, particularly now in 2023, where there’s a lot of– feels like there’s a lot of stuff swirling around?

AMY EDMONDSON: I think it starts with, personally, taking the time to reconnect with your own sense of purpose for doing the job, the role that you are currently doing, and consider why it matters to you and why what you are doing or leading matters to the world.  And having done that, share it. Share it often. And then, just as quickly, invite others in to help navigate the necessarily stormy waters that lie ahead.  So, I think it starts with you, and then it’s an honest sharing of why you care, why it’s challenging, why you very much need and are interdependent with others because all of us want to be needed. We want to be needed, we want to matter.

ADI IGNATIUS: Yeah. Well, that’s great. I mean, I think this has been a particularly– I don’t know, I mean, the last few years, the pandemic, I’d say, certainly in the US, increased attention to social issues which, on the one hand, I think felt right to people in the workplace; on the other, brought more challenges into the workplace in terms of what we’re thinking about and what we’re trying to address.  One imagines there’s a pendulum and it might swing between leadership needing to be very empathetic to, I don’t know, the backlash, if that’s the right word, to leaders need to achieve productivity. I mean, that’s what it’s all about. Do you believe in that pendulum or are we in a different place? And if you do, where are we right now on that swing?

AMY EDMONDSON: So, I believe in the pendulum. I believe that the pendulum happens. And I believe there may be a better way. So, it’s often thought of as empathy versus productivity. And I looked this up, actually. Productivity is defined as the effectiveness of productive effort as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input. OK.  So, the first problem is, not all work is easily measured for productivity. And the second problem is, often, it’s not the right way to measure excellence. And so, productivity is often a short-term measure. And it has limited predictive value for the future performance of the firm.  For example, one way to be really productive is to just push people to their limits, but that has time constraints. Eventually they will burn out, leave, et cetera. It’s like– Buckminster Fuller used to say, it was foolish to burn down the house to keep warm on a cold winter’s night. Excessive pressure can be the equivalent of that error.  And also, innovation work in particular. We have case study after case study where the work actually suffers when productivity metrics are brought to bear.  So, I guess– in a way, I wish the pendulum were more about excellence than productivity because I think productivity is really tricky and variable to measure. So maybe– I see the pendulum existing, but maybe it’s a false dichotomy. Maybe it’s not empathy versus productivity.  Maybe we need smart, caring leaders who understand the importance of both, and given that that’s very challenging, they’re open about it being challenging, they’re asking for help, they’re sharing the burden of caring and excellence with their teams and considering, again, the fundamentals of what it is the organization must do well to stay alive in its market, to perform in its market. And you talk about it honestly. I mean, I sometimes think we don’t talk often enough about the fact that work is work. It’s supposed to be a little bit of work, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, energizing, collaborative, and full of empathy.

ADI IGNATIUS: Yeah. I love that. Well, maybe that’s a good point to end on. So, Amy Edmundson, thank you for being on the show. Thank you for a lot of thoughts, a lot of thoughts about failure, about teams, about psychological safety, about how to lead in tough times. Amy Edmondson, thank you for being on the show.

AMY EDMONDSON: Thanks for having me. All the best.

HANNAH BATES: That was Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson – in conversation with HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about business strategy from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. We’re a production of the Harvard Business Review. Idf you want more podcasts, articles, case studies, books, and videos like this, find it all at This episode was produced by Julia Butler and Scott LaPierre,Anne Saini, and me, Hannah Bates. Direction and video by Dave Di Iulio and Elie Honein, Andy Robinson and Tristen Mejias-Thompson are production assistants. Ian Fox is our editor. Special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.


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