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Why Professional Growth Requires Intelligent Failure

Friday May 31, 2024

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Failure is an inevitable part of any business venture.

Although there’s a lot of rhetoric around the importance of failing fast and often, the fear of failure can still interfere with innovation and productivity.

Furthermore, although company leadership may stress the importance of learning from failures, in psychologically unsafe organizations it’s still likely to be punished.

When failures are frowned upon, your focus can easily shift from “What have I learned from this failure?” to “How can I downplay this failure and minimize its impact?”

Worse, the failure might be hushed up to prevent leadership from finding out about it.

Leaders and employees alike must recognize the value of failure and learn to approach it intelligently to achieve professional growth. Here’s an overview of intelligent failure and how to promote it.

What Is Intelligent Failure?

Failure isn’t inherently good or bad. The context surrounding the failure and the steps taken afterward determine its value.


Many failures are preventable and unnecessary. There are two primary categories of avoidable failures:

  • Basic failure: A result of carelessness or ignorance
  • Complex failure: A result of multiple factors, none of which would have caused failure on their own

According to Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson, intelligent failure is different in the sense that it’s intended to help identify the best path forward.

Intelligent failure is comprised of four factors:

  • It takes place in a new territory where there isn’t an existing playbook
  • It’s in pursuit of a goal or an opportunity
  • It’s informed by available knowledge
  • It’s not bigger than it needs to be to be informative

Below are five tips for failing intelligently at your organization.

How To Fail Intelligently

1. Do Your Research

Intelligent failure is guided by existing knowledge.

“If there is a way to do it right, please do it right the first time,” advises Edmondson in the Teamraderie Leadership Lab event The Science of Failing Well. “I don’t like to see failures that could have been successes if someone had only done their homework.”

It’s also important to remember that the end goal of intelligent failure is learning from it in order to ultimately achieve success.

As Edmondson says, “You have to be willing to confront [failure] head on and figure out where and how to do the fail fast part so that when it really matters you’re doing the succeed beautifully part.”

2. Avoid the “Blame Game”

Failure can often result in the “blame game.” If failure is punished and perceived as a mistake rather than a learning opportunity, nobody will want to be held accountable.

This can result in accusations and conflict escalation.

Organizations must encourage the pursuit of accountability, and in doing so, celebrate those who accept accountability and truly learn from their mistakes.

“Companies don’t think enough about how their real asset is their learning capacity, not their performing capacity,” says Edmondson in The Science of Failing Well. “The performing capacity accounts for yesterday’s success, but it won’t get us tomorrow’s success.”

3. Learn From Others’ Failures

It’s best to avoid making the same mistakes others have made.

“Learn as best you can vicariously from other people’s failures inside the company, so you don’t have to repeat them—that’s wasteful,” advises Edmondson in The Science of Failing Well. “Intelligent failure is not intelligent the second time around.”

Once again, it’s important to leverage as much existing knowledge as possible before starting a project. If someone has attempted the same thing, learn why it didn’t work so that you don’t make the same mistake.

4. Learn From Your Personal Failures

Every employee fails at some point.

Even if the failure itself wasn’t approached intelligently, it’s always important to learn everything you can so that you don’t make the same mistakes in the future.

To learn from personal mistakes, Edmondson recommends stopping, challenging, and choosing:

  • Stop: “Pause the unhelpful thinking and take a cool, analytical look at the situation,” suggests Edmondson. “It’s the ‘what happened?’ question.”
  • Challenge: “Challenge the unhelpful thinking and engage in truly learning-oriented thinking,” advises Edmondson.
  • Choose: “We can’t change the past,” says Edmondson. “We can only change the future and then choose that better path. Choose the learning over the wallowing.”

“All failures are learning opportunities, even the unintelligent ones,” says Edmondson. “We still, in fact, can learn from those too—and we should.”

5. Create Psychological Safety

There are far too many examples of preventable failures where an employee downplayed an issue or was simply too afraid to step up.
In some situations, bringing up a potential issue is punished since it can result in missed deadlines or reduced profits.

These failures are entirely unintelligent and indicative of a lack of psychological safety.

“Psychological safety describes a work environment where people believe that speaking up is feasible,” says Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson in the Teamraderie Leadership Lab event, Creating a Fearless Organization. “Not easy, necessarily, but expected, desired, welcomed.”

When an organization has psychological safety, an employee won’t be afraid to point out an error or potential failure. This is particularly important when there’s the potential for a complex failure.

“A complex failure is one that I define as having multiple factors that contributed to it, any one of which on its own would not have caused a failure,” says Edmondson. “The two big things you can do is eliminate as much complexity as possible—there’s some necessary complexity—and create as much psychological safety as possible so that the news travels fast.”

Build Psychological Safety With Teamraderie

Learning to accept and learn from failure is crucial to creating a psychologically safe organization.

Psychological safety is the foundation of creating an innovative, communicative, and accountable work environment where toxicity isn’t tolerated and teamwork is prioritized.

Is your organization ready to think big, fail gracefully, and innovate fearlessly? Bring your team on a psychological safety journey co-created with Amy Edmondson today.

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