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The Learning Curve

How to find success with the 4 conditions of “intelligent failure”

When we prepare for our plans to go wrong, we build the foundations for lasting profit.
A failure of a paper airplane constructed from crumpled paper.
Adobe Stock / Big Think / Ben Gibson
Key Takeaways
  • Failure should be avoided when it is risky and costs are high.
  • Intelligent failure occurs in a low-risk environment and leads to growth or new knowledge.
  • To fail intelligently, follow our five essential strategies.

A typical child’s bedroom is a shrine dedicated to failure. There’s the guitar gathering dust in the corner, the unfinished books forever shelved, the two-sizes-too-small karate gi hanging in the closet, and the magic set where half the contents disappeared (never to reappear). Each one a sacrifice to the hobbies and subjects that were tried, failed at, and ultimately abandoned. 

And that’s great! Children come into the world with a need to explore and experiment, and we understand that failure will be an inevitable part of their growth. However, at some point — usually between high school and adulthood — we lose the sense that failure is a necessary part of achievement.

“There is a deep-rooted belief in our culture that success means never failing. That failure is unacceptable. That if I fail, it means there’s something wrong with me,” Amy Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management at the Harvard Business School, tells Big Think. “Of course, that’s nonsense. We all make mistakes, and failure is part of the journey towards success.”

Edmondson has studied failure in its various forms and reached the conclusion that there are three distinct ways to fail. Understanding the difference can help us rediscover how to fail in ways that are beneficial, less costly, and maybe even exciting.

The types of failure to avoid

The first type of failure is “basic failure.” Such slip-ups occur from carelessness, distraction, exhaustion, or any number of other attention-snatching scenarios. They can include a typo in an office-wide memo, forgetting your mom’s birthday, or reaching for the salt instead of the sugar when baking a pie. 

Typically, basic failures lead to pint-sized consequences and easy fixes. Your team members razz you for the typo, and you correct it. You apologize to your mom and buy her an extra special gift. You throw out the pie and bake another (but not before labeling your kitchen containers).

But the consequences can sometimes be colossal. Million-dollar court cases have hinged on the presence or absence of a comma in a contract. Even so, the aftermath still resulted from a simple error.

The second type of failure is “complex failure.” These failures stem from multiple causes and can be unavoidable if the causes coalesce in ungovernable ways. For example, senior leaders at a company must make decisions despite a myriad of external market forces and internal dynamics to account for. The unpredictable and ever-changing nature of these factors means some decisions are bound to fail.

However, complex failure can also occur when we have the knowledge to avoid it — or at least minimize the fallout — and we ignore that knowledge. The Great Recession of 2008, the Bernie Madoff scandal, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are all complex failures of this ilk.

Both basic and complex failures should be avoided when possible. Of course, they’ll happen anyway. No one has perfect control of their life. However, we can sidestep more of these failures if we give ourselves the time, energy, and focus to act with care and forethought. This is especially true if the task is important — such as, say, reviewing a million-dollar contract for grammar.

The right kind of wrong

The third type of failure is “intelligent failure.” These are the failures that teach us something new or improve us in some fashion. According to Edmondson: “Whereas I am in favor of minimizing the basic failures and trying to catch and correct all the problems that lead to complex failures, I think it’s a good idea to have more intelligent failures.”

Edmondson notes that there are four criteria for calling a failure intelligent failure:

  1. Relate to an area you don’t have knowledge in.
  2. Be in pursuit of a goal.
  3. Not be a random guess but hypothesis-driven.
  4. Result in a failure that is as small as possible.

You may notice something about these four criteria: They represent the type of failure children excel at. A child hasn’t tried karate before (no knowledge) and thinks she’ll like it (hypothesis). She trains to earn her yellow belt (goal), but she decides it’s not for her after a couple months (small cost). Similar intelligent failures play out in families every day.

These criteria also represent the type of failure that scientists have relearned in their professional pursuits. Biologist Stuart Firestein even argues that failure is the reason for science’s many successes. He points out that the trial-and-error nature of science makes failure inevitable, but when that failure is informative, it is nonetheless successful because it shapes the next experiment and teaches us what is not true. “No failure, no science,” Firestein writes.

Edmondson makes a similar case. As she tells Big Think: “If you want to have more intelligent failures in your life, in your work, essentially, you have to think like a scientist. They have trained themselves to not just tolerate failure but to really welcome the lessons that each failure brings.”

A man sitting at a table in a lab.
Alexander Fleming once botched an experiment by contaminating his Petri dishes with mold. However, Fleming was open to intelligent failure, and he noticed that the mold had killed bacteria in the dishes. This realization led to his breakthrough discovery of Penicillin. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Build your way toward intelligent failure 

To ensure that your next potential failure is intelligent, look to Edmondson’s four criteria and think of your next task as an experiment. Whether you’re designing a new product or cooking an unfamiliar recipe, state your goal, hypothesize the best way to accomplish it, and give yourself the time you need for trial and error.

These five essential strategies can help as well:

Start small. Engineers don’t build a skyscraper and hope an earthquake doesn’t knock it down. They build table-sized models and test the structure with simulated earthquakes. Similarly, start-ups don’t spend forever building the best version of their product. They develop a minimum viable product and test it with small groups.

Determine what the minimum viable version of your idea is and give that a try first. This allows you to learn valuable lessons while keeping any fallout as small as possible.

Have a lot of ideas. When people hold one precious idea, they risk over-investing their time, money, energy, and ego. That can lead us to fear any failure — even an intelligent one. Instead, brainstorm many ideas and start with the one that shows the most promise. Should it fail, you can move on to the next one while using those lessons to inform future attempts.

Establish a feedback mechanism. When people are emotionally invested in an idea or outcome, they may not be in a position to properly assess its successes and failures. For a more objective evaluation, establish a feedback mechanism that gathers honest opinions and constructive criticism.

For instance, writers rely on editors for feedback, while scientists attempt to replicate each other’s findings. Meanwhile, managers amass feedback in the form of mentorships along with annual reviews.

Note the lack of a universal approach here. Find the feedback mechanism that works for your idea and be open to what you discover.

Know when to walk away. Quitting is a type of failure, but when done strategically, the results are often intelligent. For example, a scientist may have a favorite hypothesis, but if the evidence doesn’t support it, they are wise to drop it. Similarly, an athlete must know when to exit a competition if they risk severe injury by continuing.

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“Quitting is a skill, a survival technique. It’s not — as we humans sometimes treat it — a moral failing. And resisting the impulse to quit isn’t necessarily brave or noble. It’s nonsensical,” Julia Keller writes in her book, Quitting: A Life Strategy.

Avoid the perfectionist trap. Finally, perfectionist ambitions tend to blind us to failure’s lessons. However, the simple truth is that you will fail, so why waste time and energy seeking the unattainable? Better to seek intelligent failure and learn to value it.

As Edmondson concluded: “It is natural to want to avoid failure. But when we avoid failure, we also avoid discovery and accomplishment. The only way to succeed in any endeavor worth trying is to be willing to experiment, to try new things, knowing full well that many of them will yield failures. We have to embrace those kinds of failures because that’s where great advances and even joy come from.”


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