By Mehmet Baha

As he came to the stage, around 100 people started applauding him. It was clear that he was very excited. All the lights were on him. “After finishing high school, I did not know what to do. So, I went to Asia.” he said. “After that, I started working at a bakery shop, I realised that it was not what I wanted to do.” he added. “I then started studying at a university. But I did not like what I studied. I changed my area of study.” He continued: “Later, I worked at a company but I was not sure if that’s what I wanted to do.” These were some of the sentences of a speaker at a Failure Night that I attended last year in Europe.

Creating psychological safety is one of the most important leadership responsibilities of the twenty-first century. Without psychological safety, we cannot create a working environment where people can talk about failures, learn from them, innovate and improve. That is why, it is almost a trend now that Failure Nights or similar events are organised around the world where speakers talk about their failures.

Doing training and talks in three continents, I realize that some professionals are confused about the concept of “Failure Nights” and how failures can lead to innovation and high performance.

Define types of failures and respond accordingly: I was there and heard it. “I do not agree with that. We should try not to fail and not to make errors.” said a high level employee of a European telecom company after listening to the talk of a Google employee who emphasized learning from failure. Actually, the Google employee implied the importance of intelligent failures to drive innovation.

Below you can see four failure types. The first two of them are my definitions inspired by the work Amy Edmondson, a leading expert on psychological safety, and the last two of them are Amy Admondson’s definitions:

  • Unacceptable failures
  • Improvable failures
  • Complex failures
  • Intelligent failures

When an employee does not wear a safety helmet in a factory and suffers an injury, that is an unacceptable failure. An unacceptable failure can also be gross misconduct, in that case there should be clear sanctions. When we put a product in front of a customer to find out the shortcomings of a product and get customer feedback, that can be an improvable failure. We can allow it to make the learning loop shorter in order to create the right product/service. Complex failures on the other hand are caused by unfamiliar factors in a familiar context, such as a severe flooding of a shop due to a superstorm. We can destigmatize and analyse such failures to improve a system. Intelligent failures are about “novel ways of entering into a new territory” writes Edmondson in her book “The Fearless Organisation”. For instance, a failed trial on drug development or new product which later leads to a breakthrough product. We should celebrate intelligent failures.

Aim high standards: Edmondson makes the point that psychological safety is not about lowering standards. She defines psychological safety as a work environment where employees can speak up with ideas, questions or concerns. Many organisations are stuck in the anxiety zone where they have high standards and low psychological safety. Aim is to achieve the high performance zone with high psychological safety and high standards.

Show situational humility: Leaders play a crucial role in creating psychological safety in their teams and organisations. We can be very confident about our own abilities and still be humble. Humility is the realization that we do not have all the answers. When we accept our errors and shortcomings, we show situational humility. That creates a team environment where people feel safe to share their concerns, questions, mistakes and half-formed ideas states Edmondson. This has a positive influence on psychological safety, an essential element of high-performing teams.

I was anxious to hear when or if the speaker at the Failure Night would ever mention his intelligent failure. He kept mentioning that he again changed his job after a short time. He implied that he was not sure if he loved what he did. He seemed lost, as he concluded his talk. “It is ok to share your inadequancies, failures, stupid questions and unrefined ideas without being negatively judged.” says Samuel West, founder and curator of “Museum of Failure” in Sweden. However, we should not celebrate such failures. We should celebrate the intelligent ones that present us with learning to bring us forward.

Application:

  • Write down examples of unacceptable, improvable, complex and intelligent failures in your team/organisation.
  • Which failures can you destigmatize in your team/organisation?
  • What can you do to celebrate intelligent failures in your team/organisation?