Failure. It’s not a four-letter word but it’s still a dirty word in many places.

From this starting point, we could explore attitudes towards failure and the importance of psychological safety as a key cultural element.

But we won’t.

Instead, let’s explore why failure happens.

In the September 18, 2018 edition of Forbes, Harvard professor Amy C. Edmonson provided an outline of why people fail. Let me interpret her ideas, ranked from negative to positive. People fail because of:

Deviance – they intentionally choose to deviate from what is expected

Inattention – they deviate from what is expected not by intention, but by lack of attention

Lack of ability – they don’t have the knowledge, skills, or resources to succeed

The three causes above relate to inadequacies of the individual either by malicious intent, lack of attention, or lack of capacity.

Process inadequacy – they fail because the prescribed process is deficient

Task challenge – they fail because the task is very difficult and it’s easy to fail

Process complexity – they fail because the process is complex, and its many elements may not easily adapt to new situations

Uncertainty – they fail because they cannot predict the future with any certainty, where seemingly reasonable actions produce undesired results

The four causes listed above relate to inadequacies of the process or task, or the inherent uncertainty of the future.

Hypothesis testing – they fail because an experiment designed to show the efficacy of an idea or design fails to deliver the expected result. This may be due to inadequacies in the experimental method, or inadequacies in the ideas or design.

Exploratory testing – they fail because of similar reasons to hypothesis testing, but in this case the goal is not to test a hypothesis, but to expand knowledge or investigate a possibility. Failure may be due to inadequacies in the experimental method or errors in the conceptual understanding. If it is the latter, they may have successfully refuted a claim.

The two causes listed above are presented as the most praiseworthy types of failure because they highlight conceptual errors rather than inadequacies in people or processes.

So, what are we to make of Edmonson’s ideas?

They flow from failures caused by inadequacies in the system to failures exposed by the scientific method. We certainly can’t justify failures caused by malice, poor situational awareness, or low capability. But before we start blaming people who fail for such reasons, perhaps we should consider whether culture plays a part in producing these outcomes.

We could also examine the quality of our processes and tasks before we point the finger at people who fail.

And, finally, on Edmonson’s last two causes of failure, I want to suggest two points. First, we must understand how the scientific method works. Science is not about proving that our ideas are true. It is about discovering truths about reality, and it does that by exposing errors. All human thought contains errors and when we allow those errors to be exposed, we have an opportunity to do something to correct them.

And second, we should recognise that failures don’t always produce worse outcomes – sometimes they produce much better outcomes. This is how evolution works. Errors in copying genes sometimes lead to beneficial mutations. It’s the same with memes. Sometimes failure allows us to discover something better that what we were trying to achieve.

So, what does failure mean to you?

Steve Barlow
Author: Steve Barlow

Steve heads up The Change Gym. He is a change readiness specialist. You can contact him at