As far as I know, Sim Sitkin first defined Intelligent Failure in 1992 in Learning through failure: the strategy of small losses by identifying five characteristics of intelligent failures:
- They result from thoughtfully planned actions,
- Have uncertain outcomes,
- Are of modest scale,
- Are executed and responded to with alacrity, and
- Take place in domains that are familiar enough to permit effective learning.
Building on this, I use the concept in verb and noun form as a catch-all to succinctly describe an ideal way of interacting with failure.
To me, the concept comes from a the recognition that to solve our most complex problems requires a different relationship with failure. Generally speaking, I see two sides to the concept of intelligent failure: There is the learning, adaptation and resilience side; and there is the innovation, creativity and agility side. The two sides seem disparate at first – the learning happens after a failure, the innovation happens because you made room for failure in the first place – but I’ve found the pursuit and practice of one often leads to improvements in both.
Intelligent failure is NOT about celebrating failure or even embracing it. I have spent too much time around people in the midst of failure to use those terms. Failure sucks. But it’s also largely inevitable. So considering it’s going to happen, someone who fails intelligently is able to get beyond the negative experience and realize the best thing we can do with a failure is to maximize our learning from it.
Intelligent failure is the intentional practice of reacting to failures more productively. Since we are not taught how to fail, our instinctive reactions to failure are usually defensive, dysfunctional and generally don’t serve us very well. But intelligent failure is a skill that can be practiced.
The gap between where we are, and where we want to be, is often filled with learning, innovation, and change. The practice of intelligent failure is both about maximizing productive learning post-failure, and about building our personal and organizational tolerance for risk taking.
Personally, this practice might mean reacting with appreciation and curiosity for what was learned when we or those around us fail. It could also be communicating failures to ourselves and others in a way that focuses on the learning.
Organizationally, the practice of intelligent failure might be creating a safe place for innovation to thrive because effort and smart risk-taking are rewarded, not just outcomes and successes. It might also mean using failures as opportunities to see ways to become more resilient.
Finally, the ability to fail intelligently, whether personally or organizationally, is increasingly an essential skill in an ever-changing world. Eddie Obeng talks about how the pace of change of our world has surpassed our ability to learn and have the knowledge needed to solve our most important challenges. Therefore, we have to create space to experiment, figure out what does and doesn’t work, learn and adapt.
Those are all my thoughts on the matter. I am seriously impressed you made it this far!