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  • Louise Lilja

Book Review: Right Kind of Wrong by Amy Edmondson 

In Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson challenges the conventional view of failure as something to be avoided at all costs. Instead, she argues that learning to fail well is essential for personal and organizational growth.


four light bulbs in a row, three of which are broken, each more broken than the other.
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Across industries, from business to healthcare to education, the fear of failure can paralyze innovation, hold back creativity and hinder progress. However, by learning to understand the nuances of failure, exploring its root causes, and cultivating a culture that embraces experimentation and learning, individuals and organizations can not only bounce back from setbacks, but also thrive amid adversity. In Amy Edmondson’s new book, Right Kind of Wrong, we learn to understand the importance of learning to fail well and the potential it holds for shaping our future endeavors. 


Edmondson's expertise in leadership, management, and organizational behavior, coupled with her focus on the role of psychological safety in fostering learning, innovation, and performance, positions her as an authority when it comes to the complexities of failure. Edmondson has committed herself to understanding and addressing where failures stem from and their profound impact on organizational effectiveness and individual well-being. 


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According to Edmondson, although failure is an inevitable part of life and learning, not all failures are created equal due to the varying degree of impact they have on us. Through her vast research, she has uncovered that different types of failures exist with distinct characteristics and implications. Edmondson distinguishes between "preventable failures" and "intelligent failures."   


"Preventable failures" occur when known risks or errors are not addressed, often due to negligence, oversight, or lack of attention to detail. These failures are typically avoidable and represent lapses in organizational systems or processes. 


In contrast, "intelligent failures" result from well-intentioned actions taken in the pursuit of innovation, learning or growth. These failures occur when we push boundaries, experiment with new ideas, or challenge the status quo. While they may not always achieve the desired outcome, intelligent failures offer valuable insights, lessons and opportunities for improvement. 


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Edmondson is a great advocate of intelligent failures and hails them as necessary for us to truly learn and succeed. She does note that failing well can't happen without an organizational culture that supports it. Creating psychological safety is crucial—allowing people to speak up honestly without fear of retaliation. This involves calling attention to novelty/risk, proactively inviting input, and responding empathetically when someone dissents. While I don’t believe that Edmondson downplays this necessity, I believe that she could have spent more time explaining that few organizations and situations offer psychological safety in our current community and that this is an area where we need to do more for us to truly be able to focus on the idea of intelligent failure.  

 

 Throughout the book, Edmonson’s style of writing is accessible and engaging, and the book draws the reader in. She blends real-world examples with extensive research and often uses her own experiences to illustrate her points, which makes it easier for the reader to relate. 


While reading, I found some sections hard to follow, as Edmondson jumped between topics, seemingly bursting with so much to convey. However, at the end of each chapter she adeptly tied everything together, compelling me to read on. 


The book felt to me both enlightening and alarming. It's oddly comforting to realize we're not alone in our mistakes, but it's also a bit worrying. If even doctors and pilots make mistakes, who's then left to save the day? Cue the nervous laughter!  


As someone who grew up with the idea that getting the highest grades in school meant that you could do anything, the thought of failure was petrifying. It felt like failure was not something you could come back from and would define your path forever. This mindset persisted from school to professional life and beyond and I am sure I’m not alone. While some studies suggest that school grades significantly impact future career prospects, others indicate that academic performance has limited influence on adult life. Whether we succeed or fail in school, the experience is likely to teach us valuable lessons, but it rarely dictates our entire future. Edmondson’s book reminded me of that.  


In the end, Edmondson reminds us all that failing is human and while there are repercussions—sometimes horrifying ones—for most of us, failing provides an opportunity to learn and rethink, grow with our mistakes and ultimately, unlock true human potential.  


 

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