How to succeed at failing

Jun 23, 2024

 

Failure at some level is inevitable – but how we respond to and manage that failure is what can set us apart.

As practitioners and leaders in architecture, engineering, and construction firms well know, all of our projects go exactly as planned. Circumstances never change, all procedures and standards are followed to the letter every time, and unforeseen events are completely unheard of. What a charmed life we live! Right? Right?!?

In truth, my next perfect project will be the first of my career, and I’m sure most of you are in the same boat. We are routinely confronted with challenges and change, but what about mistakes and failure? Our project environments have so many stakeholders, so many shifting variables, and so many personalities involved that failure at some level is inevitable. How we respond to and manage that failure is what can set us apart.

In her new book The Right Kind of Wrong, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson provides clear definitions for the types of failures we encounter, and makes the case for why psychological safety is critical for handling those failures well. Her groundbreaking prior research on mistakes in hospital environments led her to coin the term “psychological safety.” Her initial hypothesis was that teams of nurses and doctors who trusted each other and had great intra-team communication would experience fewer failures than teams without those traits, but to her surprise the initial data actually said the opposite!

The teams that appeared healthy on the surface had higher rates of mistakes. Continued digging into the data revealed a surprising discovery: the high trust teams reported more mistakes than their peers; the peer firms had more and worse failures but tried to disguise and cover up those failures. The psychologically safe environment kept staff from being afraid to raise their hands when mistakes occurred, which allowed those teams to learn from those failures as a group and thus reduce the incidences of future failures. The lesson for us all is to not confuse “no news” with “good news.”

In order to understand how Dr. Edmondson’s findings can translate to the AEC environment, let’s review some key concepts from her book:

  • Blame or praise. Failures exist on a scale of “blameworthiness.” On one extreme of the scale are failures attributable to intentional harm or sabotage; these are easy to blame others for. On the opposite end of the scale are “praiseworthy” failures such as those that results from intentional experimentation. Just because your initial hypothesis proved incorrect doesn’t mean that valuable information was not obtained!
  • Types of failure:
    • Basic failures are those that occur because we deviate from known processes, standards, or available information, whether due to inattention, neglect, or overconfidence.
    • Complex failures occur in environments where multiple, competing variables impact the outcome, and are generally when multiple small deviations or mistakes stack up to cause a large failure.
    • Intelligent failures are the result of intentional experimentation in new, novel territory.
  • Failure context describes the operating environment:
    • Consistent context describes routine, repeatable environments like an assembly line in a factory.
    • Variable context environments have changing conditions, personnel, stakeholder opinions, etc. Our design projects in the AEC world are a great example of variable context.
    • Novel context is the true unknown, and is generally the realm of experimentation.

In our variable context environment, basic failures can and do happen but leveraging standard processes and procedures in the execution of our work can provide tremendous help in reducing their occurrence. We really need to be mindful of complex failures, where multiple small missteps or factors converge. So how do we as leaders create a culture that can weather mistakes and failures in a resilient, healthy way?

  • Create a culture of psychological safety. If your people are treated with dignity and respect, are provided with the tools and resources they need to get the job done, and don’t spend a large portion of their mental energy worrying about job security, they will be more likely to speak up when issues arise. This does not mean we have an environment of low standards or accountability. As Dr. Edmondson states in the book, “A culture that makes it safe to admit failure can (and, in high-risk environments, must) coexist with high performance standards. A blame culture primarily serves to ensure that people don’t speak up about problems in time to correct them, which obviously doesn’t help performance.” This leads us to…
  • Blameless reporting. Encourage people to speak up quickly when problems arise, and put the immediate focus on solving the problem rather than assigning responsibility. By creating separation between the act of solving and the act of judging, we allow more thoughtful responses and cooler heads to prevail. This does not mean there won’t be consequences, particularly for illegal behavior or repetition of past errors, but it sets the standard that people will be dealt with fairly.
  • Learn from past failures. This is crucial, and requires open dialog amongst the team. We all need to learn from our own mistakes, but we also need to create environments where we can learn from each other’s mistakes. We can’t learn if people are afraid to speak up, which ties us back to creating a psychologically safe culture.

Nobody likes to make a mistake, and certainly nobody likes to have that mistake discussed amongst their peers. This process requires mutual courage and vulnerability, but can reap tremendous rewards for the overall health, stability, and growth of our firms. 

Morgan Stinson is chief operating officer at EEA Consulting Engineers. Contact him at morganstinson@eeace.com.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.