Issue #87
#87 - The Surprising Power Of Embracing Mistakes
October 13, 2023

Losing a tennis match isn't failure; it's research. - Billie Jean King

At Netflix, feedback was a linchpin of the culture, and the company the most candid organization I've worked for. Once, in a session on giving feedback well, a long-tenured leader shared something that stuck with me:

"I love playing tennis, and I have a coach. Whenever I mess up or do something wrong, she let's me know. If I should have gripped the racket tighter on a volley, she tells me, and I nod. If I fail to center myself after a backhand, she points it out, and I adjust. No big deal.

At work, we actually want the same thing: to get better. But because it's "work", admitting that we've done anything wrong makes us all sorts of anxious."

Today though, we explore the unexpected upside of admitting our mistakes at work. We check in on some of the latest (fascinating) research. Then we go past theory to two examples of corporate failure, to learn how leaders handled those mistakes, and what they modeled to their teams:

🎯 Story #1 - Amy Edmondson's concept of psychological safety is a tremendous tool for understanding organizational behavior. In her new book, the Harvard scholar shares surprising research on the performance of teams that make fewer mistakes but cover them up; versus those that make more mistakes but openly acknowledge those errors. We dig in. ⬇️

🎯 Story #2 - Ever been on an email list and replied to the whole distribution, instead of the one sender you meant to write? Yeah, we have, too. But when an exec at Google accidentally did it, she emailed 27,000 employees. 🤦🏻‍♂️ Mortifying as that was, she then emailed the same 27,000 Googlers a second time; on purpose. 🤔 Here's why she did, what she said -- and why it had such an impact.

🎯 Story #3 - Many of us have a Dyson product in our homes. A polished vacuum, a shiny air purifier; a sleek hair dryer, perhaps?! But when I visited Dyson's global HQ in Singapore, what sat in the middle of its lobby left me awestruck in the best possible way. 🤩 This is the Story of the firm's failed electric car, and how founder-CEO James Dyson turned a billion-dollar mistake into a physical celebration of failure.

Thanks for reading and exploring with us -- and have a great end to your week!

Aki + Usman


#FailureScience #Necessity #Inclusion #FirstStep

There's an academic field full of "failure scientists", but Amy Edmondson is arguably the most successful one. 🙃 Edmondson coined the term "psychological safety", a concept we explored in issue #68, and defined there as:

A shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. A sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.

Last month, she published a new book, "Right Kind of Wrong". The Financial Times explains how Edmonds came to write it:

Do good teams make fewer mistakes? It seems a reasonable hypothesis. But in the early 1990s, when a young researcher looked at evidence from medical teams at two hospitals, the numbers told her a completely different story: the teams who displayed the best teamwork were the ones making the most mistakes. What on earth was going on?
The researcher’s name was Amy Edmondson and, 30 years later, her new book, "Right Kind of Wrong", undoes a web of confusion about the joys of failure. She solved the puzzle soon enough: the best teams didn’t make more errors; they admitted more to making errors. Dysfunctional teams admitted to very few, for the simple reason that nobody on those teams felt safe owning up.

So Edmondson found that high performing teams made more mistakes than low performing teams. But they thrived more because they were willing and able to admit to those mistakes. They trusted one another, so they felt safe enough to acknowledge when they messed up.

What does that look like in practice though? Well, the research is a great segue to our look now at the mistakes in Stories 2 and 3. Both Stories feature leaders who messed up -- but who generate trust, good will and leverage with their teams by vulnerably owning up to their errors.


#Mistake #Vulnerability #Ownership #ModeledBehavior

Jenny Wood is a long-time Google exec. Several years ago she accidentally emailed one of the firm's email lists. The problem was, it had 27,000 employees on it.

Jason Feifer, editor of Entrepreneur magazine explains on LinkedIn:

27,000 Googlers around the world got her email and thought: WTF?

After panicking, [Wood] wrote a new email. This one owned the mistake, apologized for it, and offered some words of advice. “Not everything we do every day will be perfect,” she wrote.

Then she sent that SECOND email out to 27,000 people.

In response, more than 250 colleagues emailed her to say thank you. Jenny tells me she learned a valuable lesson: When you mess up and own it, you’re giving people an important gift. You’re showing them that it’s OK to be human, and that even leaders mess up.

Such is the impact a leader can have by owning up to a mistake. By addressing the error with vulnerability and humility, Jenny modeled accountability, defused an embarrassing gaffe, and fostered trust and respect.


#Failure #ModeledBehavior #Innovation

Dyson, the British appliance giant, moved its global headquarters from the UK to Singapore in 2022, and earlier this year, I had the chance to visit its gleaming HQ here. As I signed in, I looked up and saw a shiny car, parked in the middle of the lobby. Surprised, I turned to the front desk: "Oh, wow. I didn't know Dyson made a car."

"We don't. We tried to make one, but it failed. So James had the car put here as a reminder of the need to take risks and make mistakes."


"James" is James Dyson, the founder-CEO of the company.

I think it was how the car was so boldly placed. How beautifully it sat there; proud and unapologetic -- and failed. A big, three dimensional boast to employees and visitors alike: "Failure is part of the process. It is part of what it means to be here."

And now that I've learned more of the story, it lands even more dramatically. Here is Dyson in 2019, telling the world it was throwing in the towel on a multi-billion dollar effort to build an electric car. One it had begun in 2017:

From an article that followed:

Electrical appliance giant Dyson announced on Thursday evening (Oct 10) its decision to scrap a £2.5 billion (US$3 billion) project to build electric cars.
Inventor James Dyson, founder of the British company that is known for its vacuum cleaners, said in an e-mail to employees that its engineers had developed a "fantastic electric car" and "have been ingenious in their approach".
But despite having "tried very hard throughout the development process", the electric car could not hit the roads because it was not "commercially viable".

Dyson is now the UK's second wealthiest citizen, but suffice to say, he's no stranger to failure:

James Dyson struggled for five years to make the world’s cyclone vacuum cleaner work. It took him over 5,126 prototypes before number 5,127 succeeded, in 1984. In the meantime, he had gone $2.5 million into personal debt, and his wife was growing vegetables and rearing chickens to get enough food to feed the family.

But displaying the car in it's HQ lobby isn't just about tenacity. It's a reminder that innovation often comes hand-in-hand with setbacks. And a powerful statement that says, "It's not just safe but encouraged to venture, fail -- and learn -- here." 🚀

Thanks for reading. 🙏

Work moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
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