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Failing Well: How Your ‘Intelligent Failure’ Unlocks Your Full Potential

In the 1990s, after drugmaker Eli Lilly spent more than a decade and millions of dollars developing the new drug Alimta to treat lung cancer, the medication came up short in effectively treating cancer in expanded trials.

While the failure was disappointing, it was also worthy of praise, Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson argues in her new book Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well. Alimta is an example of an “intelligent failure,” Edmondson says, because the scientists developing it had no way to advance their project other than to experiment and learn from the results.

“An intelligent failure is an undesired result in new territory,” says Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at HBS. “There’s no way you can know for sure whether it will work out without trying it.” Edmondson points to inventor Thomas Edison’s famous aphorism while trying to develop a new type of storage battery: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

“It’s natural to hunker down and imply that failure is to be avoided in tough times, but this is exactly when innovation is most needed.”

While we tend to lump all kinds of failures together, experiencing them all as negative experiences in life or in business, Edmondson contends that some failures are smarter than others because they help us identify a path toward eventual success. In the workplace, an employee may try something new with the goal of improving the business, but if the project fails, the employee often risks a bad performance review or even a job loss. Instead, managers should applaud the employee for embarking on a worthwhile experiment and encourage others to do the same, knowing that the future success of the business depends upon today’s innovation, which necessarily means experiencing failures along the way, Edmondson says.

Taking this approach may be especially important now, as employers struggle to retain talent and boost employee morale in workplaces that were completely reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. And in an economy that continues to face recessionary headwinds, the real innovation that can come out of learning from intelligent failures may be what companies most need today. As Edmondson put it, “It’s natural to hunker down and imply that failure is to be avoided in tough times, but this is exactly when innovation is most needed.”

As it turns out, Eli Lilly’s initial failure with Alimta led the drugmaker to a solution. By carefully examining the data from the clinical trials, scientists found that the drug worked for some patients, but not others—and those patients that didn’t see improvement all had one thing in common: a folic acid deficiency. When the drug was reformulated with folic acid, it passed its efficacy trials, eventually becoming a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical that helped thousands of lung cancer patients.

How to fail intelligently

Edmondson, who has studied the psychology of failure for more than three decades, says an intelligent failure differs from two other types of failures: a basic failure, which is caused by carelessness or ignorance, and a complex failure, which is caused by multiple factors, none of which would have caused the failure on its own. In both of those cases, a company or an individual can minimize the chances of those failures occurring by paying close attention and catching mistakes before they spiral out of control.

Intelligent failure, on the other hand, is unavoidable if a person or business is taking the kinds of calculated risks that can result in great rewards, Edmondson says. In fact, if you are not regularly failing intelligently, then you probably are not operating at your full potential. So how can you tell the difference? Edmondson identifies four factors that characterize intelligent failure:

  • The experiment takes place in new territory. It starts with a goal that requires breaking new ground and is not just retreading work that’s already been done, such as a copycat drug or a technology that’s similar to another one on the market. “There is no new knowledge to produce the results you want,” she explains. “You can’t look up the recipe.”
  • The initiative presents a credible opportunity to advance toward a desired goal. The plan is thoughtful and intentional, offering a significant reward if successful. “If I’m at risk of failure and it’s pointless, why do it?” she says. “You’re just wasting time and resources.”
  • The experiment is “hypothesis-driven,” meaning it’s informed by present knowledge. Trying something new requires doing your homework and basing your actions on a reasonable expectation of success. “You have reason to believe it could work,” Edmondson says. “You’re not just engaging in random action.”
  • The failure is as small as it can be to produce the desired insights. Finally, the project does not risk excess resources in the event something goes wrong. “Nobody wants a bigger failure than necessary,” she says. Perhaps that means only pursuing a new initiative as a pilot project before launching it for real. “You want the new knowledge for the lowest price you can get it,” she says.

When embarking on an experiment, Edmondson says, you can’t always guarantee you will succeed, but you can increase the likelihood that your failures will be manageable and generate new knowledge that will boost your chances of success in the future.

A failed blind date leads to success

The benefits of intelligent failures apply not only to business, but also to our personal lives. Edmondson explains that she is actually a product of learning from failure. In the 1950s, her mother Mary had agreed to go on a blind date set up by her childhood friend Bill, who had arranged for her to travel from Vassar College to Princeton, New Jersey, to spend a weekend dining, dancing, and socializing with his friend. The weekend turned out to be a bust, since her date drank too much, talked only about himself, and acted “forward,” as Edmondson’s mother later put it.

When Bill suggested a year later that Mary go out on a new blind date with Bob, the brother of a woman Bill was dating, Mary was skeptical—but didn’t want to totally write him off. After all, dating is unknown territory, where you don’t know if you will have chemistry with someone until you try. The opportunity was significant: a potential life partner. Plus, despite Bill’s previous mistake, Mary did trust him to have some knowledge of the type of person she was looking for.

Learning from her past failure, Mary decided to hedge her bets and agree to meet for a drink, not a full college weekend, keeping her potential losses as small as possible. “At the most, she only risked a few boring hours,” Edmondson says. “She intuitively mitigated the risk.” As it turns out, Mary did hit it off with her new date, and ended up marrying Bob (HBS MBA 1955), who would become Edmondson’s father.

“That’s obviously a success, not a failure,” Edmondson says. But only by being willing to fail intelligently was she able to succeed.

Read a second Working Knowledge story about Edmondson’s book: Thriving After Failing: How to Turn Your Setbacks Into Triumphs.

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