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Book Review: Right Kind of Wrong

RIGHT KIND OF WRONG: The Science of Failing Well. Amy C. Edmondson. (2023, Kindle Edition)

There are many powerful quotes on the topic of failure, such as: “Failure is success in progress." ― Albert Einstein; and "There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period." ― Brene Brown. Yet, the reality is that most people view failure from a negative lens. In her book, Right Kind of Wrong, author Amy Edmondson maintains that, from a rational perspective, most people understand that failure is an unavoidable part of life, that it can be a source of learning, and even a prerequisite for progress and innovation; yet emotionally and practically, it is hard to experience failure that way. The good news, Edmondson contends, is that failing well can be learned. That said, to “fail well” is not easy, as it requires overcoming the obstacles that keep us stuck in the negative⎯specifically, an instinctive aversion to failure, a confusion about its different forms, and a fear of rejection. In her book, Right Kind of Wrong, Edmondson offers research-informed insights and effective practices on how to successfully navigate and learn from failure.

Amy Edmondson is a Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School and a scholar of leadership, teaming, and organizational learning. In her book, Right Kind of Wrong, Edmondson delves into the psychology behind what makes learning from failure so difficult, and offers frameworks and lessons learned on how to do better based on her work as an academic researcher in social psychology and organizational behavior over a period of a quarter century. In the book, she also describes and explains the crucial competencies for mastering the science of failing well, which include: 

  • understanding of the types of failure that are the “right kind of wrong” from those that should be prevented based on a typology of failure types;

  • importance of psychological safety, particularly in the performance of teams/groups;

  • how to think differently about failure by reframing it and setting realistic expectations about it;

  • how to recognize contexts in which failures are likely; and 

  • the role of systems (relationships between the set of individual parts/elements that come together to form a meaningful whole) and what vulnerabilities those relationships create.

The book is organized into two parts. In Part One, a simple typology for distinguishing failures is introduced: 

  • Intelligent failure: which is the “right kind of wrong” that provides valuable new knowledge and brings about discovery.

  • Basic failure: which is largely preventable and unproductive—often resulting in a waste of time, energy, and resources.

  • Complex failure: which has multiple causes that can interact in unexpected ways.

In Part Two, Edmondson presents the latest thinking on self-awareness, situation awareness, and system awareness—and how these capabilities intersect with the three types of failure. In this section, Edmondson delves into the tactics and habits that allow people to practice the science of failing well at work and in their lives.

A cautionary note about the book deserves mention here. The text is rather dense and the concepts that are presented are sometimes complex. That said, the book is written in an interesting story-telling style and offers many important insights on failure. For some, reading the detailed text could require perseverance.

Two high-level takeaways from this book for this reviewer include:

  • To thrive as a fallible human being requires that we learn to fail well by preventing “basic” failures as often as possible, anticipating “complex” failures so as to prevent or mitigate them, and cultivating an appetite for more frequent “intelligent” failures. 

  • It is a lifelong process to discover how to recognize and learn from each of the three failure types and to strengthen each of the three awareness zones.

Overall, the frameworks presented are insightful and the tactics for how to do better are actionable. In particular, the material on psychological safety resonated as an important factor in working with teams/groups to create collaborative environments where people are encouraged to identify and learn from problems, failures, and errors.

Right Kind of Wrong is a worthwhile read for those interested in building greater awareness, understanding and competence in how to anticipate failure, communicate openly about mistakes, learn from them, and keep the same mistake(s) from happening again.


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