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Lessons in Failure: The Right Kind of Wrong

Book Review Series
By Dafydd Rees
06 February 2024
Corporate Reputation
Financial Communications
book review

In the weeks just before Christmas the “Right Kind of Wrong”, written by the Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson, was voted the FT and Schroders Business Book of the Year.

The Editor of the FT described the book as “highly readable and relevant” with important lessons for leaders everywhere. Another judge went further and described the book as a “practical prescription to address the issues businesses face every day”.

With that kind of high praise, who wouldn’t want to know more about how to learn from intelligent failure and so take better risks in their personal or professional life? 

As a management guru, Professor Edmondson is known for her focus on the need for psychological safety within any business. If you want to know how to thrive in a world that keeps changing, she highlights the surprising fact from her research that better performing teams make more mistakes. If you feel unable or uncomfortable about reporting errors, they stay hidden. Our human bias against loss and negativity needs to be overcome to create any kind of learning environment.

For me, the fascinating thing about reading this book was the danger and drawbacks of being a perfectionist. Professor Edmondson highlights how at the Olympics Games, research has shown that silver medallists seem overcome with feelings of failure, but bronze medallists experience far more positive emotions of success.

Context matters, especially when you remember that the relationship between effort and success is imperfect. Fear inhibits learning. Overconfidence needs to be overcome by humility. The inevitability of error requires a high degree of vigilance as the case studies of Japanese car maker Toyota and the multiple space shuttle disasters at the space agency NASA reveal.

But most important of all in my view as a lesson in leadership is Professor Edmondson’s advice to pause and allow, “a space between stimulus and response” in order to ask the vital question, how do I know I’m right?

Learning from failure threatens our self-esteem. We need to reframe our emotional response to accept setbacks as necessary. Her advice to stop and pause, then challenge and choose helps show that in our efforts to normalise failure, our greatest enemy as fallible human beings, is always ourselves.