How to make sure you categorize your failure right, allowing for fundamental learning about the processes that led to it

In a recent episode of Guy Kawasaki’s podcast series Remarkable People, Amy Edmondson delved into how to fail well.

Edmondson is currently Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School. She’s known for her captivating  2017 Ted Talk How to turn a group of strangers into a team in which she pointed out that professional culture clash is a major obstacle to development in our business world; where professionals of different areas often didn’t see eye to eye with one another. Something that—from my PoV—definitely happens between subject matter experts and communications professionals in development cooperation.

In short, says Edmondson, this problem of not understanding each other can be overcome by leadership, since it is to a large part deliberate.

In the thought-provoking discussion with Guy Kawasaki on his podcast, she now skillfully dissects the concept of failure into three distinct categories, which is really valuable in terms of which type should be embraced and which not. (Access to podcast episode)

I will report on this and then spin my thoughts further toward what it can possibly offer us in international development cooperation; in the sense of how we deal with failure currently and how it could possibly change for the better.

Three kinds of failures

Amy Edmondson discusses intelligent failure, basic failure and complex failure. Here is a very brief summary of what she said on Guy Kawasaki’s podcast.

Intelligent Failure

    • Definition: Thoughtful forays into new territory that result in undesired outcomes.
    • Characteristics: Novel territory, pursuit of an opportunity, thorough preparation, hypothesis testing, and a small enough failure to learn from.
    • Example: Research and development, basic science, trying to find a life partner.

Basic Failure

    • Definition: Failures with a single, usually human-caused, factor.
    • Cause: Typically human error due to inattention, lack of training, or negligence.
    • Prevention Methods: Training, error-proofing, checklists, and established systems.
    • Example: Putting milk in the cabinet instead of the refrigerator.

Complex Failure

    • Definition: Failures resulting from a mix of internal and external factors.
    • Cause: Multifaceted combination of factors coming together to produce a negative outcome.
    • Prevention Methods: Systems thinking, training, and understanding how various elements interact.
    • Example: A supply chain breakdown during a global pandemic with multiple contributing factors.

The failure types and what they mean

1. The Courageous Path of Intelligent Failure

Edmondson introduces us to the concept of intelligent failure, a kind of failure that emerges when we dare to venture into uncharted territory. It’s the result of daring to innovate, pushing the boundaries, and embarking on new endeavors with meticulous planning and preparation. In essence, intelligent failure arises not from negligence but from the audacious act of trying something new. The failure here is not a sign of defeat but rather a stepping stone to progress. It signifies that you’ve had the courage to challenge the status quo and test hypotheses. With each intelligent failure, you refine your understanding and move forward with renewed insight, armed with the knowledge that you’ve debunked one hypothesis and are now poised to explore new possibilities.

Intelligent failures are desirable and occur in pursuit of opportunities with careful planning.

2. The Pitfalls of Basic Failure

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies basic failure, a more straightforward and avoidable type of failure. Dr. Edmondson illustrates this category with a simple yet relatable example: placing a carton of milk in the cupboard instead of the refrigerator. This type of failure occurs when we neglect basic knowledge or disregard established procedures. It highlights the importance of paying attention, adhering to best practices, and ensuring that even the simplest tasks are executed correctly. Basic failures are not to be celebrated but serve as a reminder that success often hinges on our ability to avoid complacency and remain attentive to the fundamental aspects of our endeavors.

Basic failures result from single, preventable causes like human errors.

3. Navigating the Complexity of Complex Failure

The third category, complex failure, introduces us to the intricate web of factors that can lead to unfavorable outcomes. Dr. Edmondson paints a vivid picture of a complex failure scenario: a supply chain breakdown during a global pandemic. Here, a multitude of internal and external variables converge to create a challenging situation where pinpointing a single cause becomes elusive. Complex failures remind us that the world is interconnected, and our actions can trigger ripple effects across a complex system. To prevent such failures, we must adopt a holistic, systems-thinking approach. By understanding the relationships between various elements, we can anticipate potential pitfalls and proactively mitigate risks.

Complex failures are caused by a combination of internal and external factors and are best prevented through systemic thinking and training.

In her insightful exploration of these three dimensions of failure, Edmondson encourages us to reframe our perspective on failure. Rather than fearing it, we should embrace failure as a means of growth and learning. Intelligent failure propels us forward, basic failure underscores the importance of diligence, and complex failure emphasizes the need for comprehensive thinking. By recognizing the nuances within each failure, we can not only navigate setbacks more effectively but also cultivate a culture where innovation and resilience thrive.

What kind are the failures in development cooperation?

Bringing this back to development cooperation, I’ve observed quite number of failures occurring. I regularly encounter discussions on LinkedIn and at events where individuals don’t necessarily complain but rather engage in conversations about projects attempting certain approaches. Inevitably, someone chimes in, pointing out that development cooperation had tried these methods before, and they haven’t yielded the desired results. There is this feeling that development cooperation does not sufficiently study its own cases. Especially with personal interaction which seems to have the capacity to carry a lot of critical information no-one dares to put into writing.

Additionally, there are knowledge management processes in place, diligently attempting to capture all relevant information. However, a prevailing issue is that this wealth of information often goes unread. Even as new knowledge management approaches are introduced and discussed, there’s a concerning lack of acknowledgment or integration with the previous knowledge management systems.

In essence, within development cooperation, we find ourselves in a perplexing situation. Many failures stem from the tendency to ignore the knowledge acquired from past endeavors. Ironically, alongside these repeated failures, we also witness occasional “fail fairs” where the acknowledgment of failures is embraced as an opportunity for discussion and learning. Large organizations engaged in development cooperation are keen on encouraging discussions about failures to prevent their recurrence.

However, there’s a caveat to this embracing of failure. It often centers around what we can term Edmondson’s Type 2 Failures. These are the failures that occur when we persistently overlook established knowledge about processes and continue down a familiar, ineffective path. What makes this misleading is that these failures are presented as if they represent pioneering efforts into novel territories, ie. Intelligent Failures. While the projects might indeed be in new geographical locations and new tools, the underlying processes are far from innovative – they are well-trodden and have previously led to unfavorable outcomes.

This misrepresentation of Basic Failures as groundbreaking Intelligent Failures is, in essence, a disservice to the public. It creates a facade of innovation where, in reality, development cooperation often entails the transfer of existing practices from the developed to the developing world. This approach is far from innovative in its truest sense, and it does not foster the kind of innovation that local communities need. It’s attempted innovation transfer using ways that are anything but new.

In fact, the innovation in development cooperation should encompass not just the introduction of new equipment or tools but also substantial advancements in processes. It’s about rethinking how aid is delivered, the reasons behind choosing specific approaches, the locations of intervention, and the beneficiaries. Unfortunately, this aspect, the process innovation, often remains stagnant and largely unchanged.

To put it succinctly, there’s a pressing need for development cooperation organizations to reevaluate their delivery methods comprehensively. While there have been developments in overarching programming approaches and strategies, the day-to-day processes have largely remained untouched. From my perspective, this stagnation in process innovation is a critical concern that demands attention and communications plays a key role.

In summary, we must recognize that real progress in development cooperation necessitates more than just discussing failures; it requires a fundamental shift in how we approach and implement projects. It’s high time that we move away from the facade of innovation and genuinely examine our processes.