The Power of Intelligent Failures for Dynamic Leadership

I had the pleasure of attending the 15th Annual Coaching in Leadership & Healthcare Conference in May, hosted by the Institute of Coaching. Along with a gathering of more than 600 other executive coaches, I was fortunate enough to hear some great presentations from various thought leaders in the field of executive development, positive psychology, change management, and general health and well-being, among others. In those types of settings, I often have clients in my mind, thinking about what may be useful to them or how I might be of better use to them. When I think about Cambria clients overall, however, one of the presentations that resonated with me most was that of Dr. Amy Edmondson. Well-known for her work around psychological safety and teaming as a means of building stronger, more resilient organizations, her presentation here was around the focus of her most recent research – “intelligent failure” – and the role this can play for executive and organizations.

In the intricate dance of business, leadership extends far beyond the realms of strategy formation, implementation, and execution. It dives into the continuous journey of discovery and the insightful embrace of intelligent failures. Amy Edmondson’s pioneering work on intelligent failures highlights an essential facet of this journey. It teaches us that not all failures are detrimental; instead, they can be invaluable learning opportunities that propel innovation and growth. Integrating this concept with the practice of constant discovery not only enriches a leader’s repertoire but also equips them to navigate the complexities of the modern business landscape with resilience and foresight.

But what exactly does Amy mean by her use of the term “intelligent failures”? As articulated so thoroughly in her book The Right Kind of Wrong; The Science of Failing Well, Amy’s perspective is that a failure is considered “intelligent” when:

  • the failure is in a new territory for the organization
  • the failure involves a mistake that provides information presenting a credible opportunity to advance toward a desired goal, and that mistake is no larger than absolutely necessary to get the desired knowledge.

Central to the ethos of discovery is an unyielding curiosity and a commitment to lifelong learning. As Amy states, “it’s hard to learn if you already know.” Therefore, executives who embody these traits inspire a culture where exploration and knowledge expansion are paramount. This ethos, combined with Edmonson’s advocacy for intelligent failures, creates a powerful dynamic. Leaders learn to see failures not as setbacks but as stepping stones toward greater understanding and innovation. This mindset not only prepares leaders to anticipate trends and challenges but also encourages their teams to embrace their own journeys of discovery and learning.

In today’s constantly evolving business environment, the ability to adapt with agility is crucial. This evolving environment will inevitably lead to mistakes and failures as part of the adaptation process. However, in comparison to those executives who are constantly reacting in the face of changing business environmental winds, those executives who are engaging in constant discovery, underpinned by a willingness to encounter and learn from intelligent failures that take place along the way, navigate this volatility with much greater confidence and adaptability. This approach allows leaders and their organizations to pivot strategies rapidly, embrace new technologies, and innovate processes to meet emerging needs and opportunities, all while maintaining a competitive edge.

A genuine commitment to discovery entails a readiness to seek and value diverse perspectives and to learn from failures. This approach broadens leaders’ understandings and challenges preconceived notions, leading to more nuanced and informed decision-making. Edmondson’s concept of intelligent failures is crucial here; it encourages a culture where mistakes are openly discussed and learned from, thus enhancing the decision-making process and fostering a proactive approach to problem-solving.

The intertwining of constant discovery and the constructive handling of intelligent failures fundamentally transforms organizational culture. Leaders who demonstrate openness to new ideas and an eagerness to learn from failures inspire their teams to adopt similar mindsets. This approach doesn’t only unleash a wave of creativity and innovation across all organizational levels but also enhances collective adaptability and resilience in facing changes and challenges.

The landscape of modern leadership demands more than strategic acumen; it requires a relentless pursuit of discovery and an enlightened approach to failures. Amy Edmondson’s work on intelligent failures, combined with the practice of constant discovery, provides a robust framework for leaders aiming to thrive in an era of unpredictability. By embracing the journey of discovery and learning from intelligent failures, leaders not only augment their personal growth but also lead their organizations toward a future marked by innovation, adaptability, and enduring success. Engage with discovery and intelligent failures and witness their transformative impact on both you and your organization.

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