March 31, 2022

Intelligent Failure: An Opportunity for Discovery

Written by Janay White, MA

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

“A person who has never made a mistake never tried anything new.” – Albert Einstein

As we navigate the ever-changing educational climate, the one constant that remains is the desire to create engaging and informative learning experiences for our students. We test methods, tools, and strategies to determine what will best fit our needs. Not all attempts will be successful. There is something to be learned through this process, however.


Innovation involves creating, testing, implementing, and diffusing new ideas, concepts, and solutions. By its very nature, innovation involves risk and unpredictability in both processes and outcomes (Hartley & Knell, 2021). Understanding this requires acknowledging that any attempt at innovation may not be successful. This does not mean that learning and growth cannot take place.


Failure can be defined as a lack of success or the inability to meet an expectation (Thompson, 2021). McGrath (1999) proposes that “failure is the termination of an initiative that has fallen short of its goals within an organization.”

While some failures may be apparent, others have subjectivity and social construction elements. This raises questions such as who defined the goals against which failure/success are measured, what is the nature of those goals, and were those goals reasonable to begin with.

Consequently, an understanding of failure entails the acceptance of a significant degree of ambiguity and the realization that failure can be contextual (Hartley & Knell, 2021).

Harvard professor, Amy Edmondson, asserts that there are three types of failure:

  • Simple failures (= mistakes). These failures are the ones where we know how to do it right, but for some reason, the process didn’t go right.
  • Complex failures (= accidents). In these failures, a set of factors come together in a novel way despite the reasonably familiar contexts.
  • Intelligent failures (= discoveries). These are the undesired results of thoughtful forays into new territory.

Edmondson also asserts that it is essential to “celebrate the discoveries while figuring out ways to minimize the number of mistakes and accidents” (Nordic Business Forum, 2021).



Intellectual Failure

The concept of intellectual failure or “failure that is effective at fostering learning” is not new to education (Sitkin, 1992, p. 243). It is quite similar to the expected outcomes of experiential learning. Learning occurs through action and the reflective process.

Simply experiencing an adverse event is not sufficient for learning. It requires a change in beliefs and attitudes so that behavior is altered. Our failures help us understand what we need to do if we want to improve (Ulmer et al., 2018)

Edmonson identifies six elements of intellectual failure (Nordic Business Forum, 2021):

  • The opportunity explored is significant. “You need to be looking at taking risks in something that matters for your mission.”
  • The outcome will be informative. “The outcome is such that you will learn from it.”
  • The cost and scope are relatively small (just large enough to be informative). “This is important; the cost and scope need to be as small as possible to still be informative.”
  • Key assumptions are explicitly articulated. “You have to specify what you are testing or interested in figuring out.”
  • The plan will test those assumptions. “The experiment you are doing needs to test the assumptions you have articulated.”
  • The risks of failure are understood and mitigated to the extent possible. “In terms of the organizational culture, the higher-ups need to be blessing these kinds of experiments.”

Action Steps

Reframe perception of failure

View failure as a learning opportunity. Failure is not inherently bad. It can be helpful. We can learn from it, gain new insights, and do better next time. The right kind of failures give us new information and teach us something that gets us closer to our goals (Thompson, 2021).

Admit failure

Appreciate the efforts that you and others have dedicated thus far. Feel successful by weighing the process as much as or more than the outcome (Thompson, 2021).

Display cognitive agility

Stay curious. Be willing to quickly learn from failures and pivot to new opportunities (Thompson, 2021).


Reviewing what was done and looking at the root causes of our failure is a key way of learning from failure. (Thompson, 2021)



Farson and Keyes (2002) suggest that success and failure are not so much rivals as siblings. The complex relationship between the two can be valuable in fostering learning and creating adaptive, successful innovations (Hartley & Knell, 2022). The willingness to learn from what could initially be deemed as a failure takes courage, vulnerability, and insight. The outcome, however, can leave a lasting impression on our students, research, and organizations.


For more information about intelligent failure, see the following:

Farson, R., & Keyes, R. (2002). The failure-tolerant leader. Harvard Business Review, 80(8), 64 – 71.

Forum, N. B. (2021, June 3). Amy Edmondson – The Science of Intelligent Failure. Nordic              Business Forum. science-of-intelligent-failure/

Hartley, J., & Knell, L. (2022) Innovation, exnovation and intelligent failure, Public Money                         & Management, 42(1), 40-48, DOI: 10.1080/09540962.2021.1965307

McGrath, R. (1999). Falling forward: Real options reasoning and entrepreneurial failure.             Academy of Management Review, 24(1), 13–30.

Sitkin, S. B. (1992). Learning through failure: the strategy of small losses. Research in                    Organizational Behavior, 14, 231–266.

Thompson, P. (2021, August 18). What is failure and how can we make the most of it?       

Ulmer, Robert R, et al. Effective Crisis Communication: Moving from Crisis to Opportunity.           Thousand Oaks, California, Sage Publications, Inc, 2018.