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Celebrating Intelligent Failures and Taking Responsibility, with Psychological Safety author Amy Edmondson
Episode 1723rd November 2023 • The Happy Manifesto • Henry Stewart, Maureen Egbe
00:00:00 00:28:36

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Creating a culture of psychological safety is crucial for organisations. By fostering an environment where people feel safe to speak up, share their ideas, and take intelligent risks, companies can promote learning, innovation, and growth. Celebrating failures – especially intelligent failures that result from thoughtful exploration – can encourage individuals to take risks and contribute to the collective knowledge of the organisation.

Amy Edmondson is largely credited as the founder of the Psychological Safety movement. She’s written five books, and her work focuses on the importance of psychological safety in organisations and how it contributes to innovation, learning, and success. She’s conducted extensive research on creating environments where individuals feel safe to speak up, share ideas, and take risks.

In this episode, Amy shares examples of organisations that have successfully created psychological safety, the concept of intelligent failures, the challenges of creating psychological safety in remote work environments and the importance of active listening and inviting participation.

Amy’s tips for a happy workplace

  • Create a culture where people feel safe to contribute their knowledge, questions, expertise, and concerns.
  • Monitor your response and show genuine interest and appreciation for what others are saying.
  • Use tools and technology to facilitate communication and collaboration.
  • Encourage taking risks and trying new things, celebrating intelligent failures that result from thoughtful exploration.

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Transcripts

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Welcome to the Happy Manifesto podcast.

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My name is Maureen Egbe.

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And I'm Henry.

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Um, and today, uh, we have a fabulous Guest on.

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We have Amy Edmondson, uh, the founder of Psychological Safety.

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She's written five books.

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Her latest book is the Right Kind of Wrong, and she is the number one

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management guru according to Thinkers 50.

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That's awesome.

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She is fabulous and we always use, um, Amy in our workshops and our, and our courses.

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Absolutely.

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So what is your joy this week?

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I have just come back from Romania.

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And I tend, I, yes, it was fabulous.

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Attended a lovely wedding wedding in Romania, but what stood out

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for me was the customer service that I received at the hotel.

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It was fabulous, um, innovative in the terms of that.

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We didn't speak the same language.

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And the staff found different ways to try and communicate with us,

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you know, but it was brilliant.

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Getting out the phone, doing translations.

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But the surface was brilliant.

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Um, I was made to feel really welcome.

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And I really did love the country.

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I do love the country, especially as it wasn't a place that was on my list to go.

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Yeah.

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And you weren't so sure about it when, when I talked before, were you?

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it wasn't that I wasn't sure about it, it was that, um, I had ex had negative

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experience from a country that's close to it, which I won't say which

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it was, but also the, um, when you go and review in terms of that there,

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and let's be clear about this, there's not many black people in Romania.

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And I did get stares, you know, especially if there was a coach load

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sort of black people, you know, going through the village and it was like, oh.

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But, but it was a lovely reception and I would encourage people to,

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you know, go beyond the typical countries and visit different places.

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Well, I'm about to go to the Carpathian mountains in Romania, um, next May.

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we're going to a wedding in bulgaria.

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Oh, next door.

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Fabulous.

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So what's your joy, Henry?

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What gave you joy?

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Well, I would say meeting with a, with a civil servant recently, and he told

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me about smarter working, uh, something called PAS3000, which is about the civil

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service is encouraging our way of working.

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They're, they're encouraging leadership that trusts their people to do a great

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job, that, uh, that encourages employers to have the power to get on with it.

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Um, it's absolutely what, what we're talking about, we need to get.

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we need to get into the civil service.

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Well, we are in the, quite a bit of the civil service at the moment, but, um,

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uh, our disorder was fabulous that that is what the civil service is talking

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about, rather than being a hierarchy with lots of levels of approval.

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That's a big change there.

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It is.

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That really is.

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Okay.

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I think it's time for Amy.

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Okay, welcome Amy.

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We are so pleased to have you on our podcast today.

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Thank you.

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So to kick us off talking about psychological safety, have you got an

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example where an organization has moved from a workplace that did not have

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psychological safety to one that did?

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Um, yes.

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Yes, in fact, I, I, I have several, but one that, um.

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one that I spent a lot of time studying some years ago was a, a Midwestern in

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the US Midwestern hospital, tertiary care children's hospital, uh, that,

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um, realized that it was very unsafe for people to speak up when they

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needed help or about a mistake.

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A hospital that worked very hard to turn, uh, the, turn the culture around

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to one where people were, um, believed it to be safe and desirable and expected,

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uh, that they speak up about error.

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I, I would also offer the, the wonderful and well-documented case study of Alan

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Mulally at Ford who profoundly changed the executive team to one in which people

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did feel able to speak up and be, and, and, you know, and have psychological

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safety and speak the truth to each other.

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And I think in the book you've, you also rec referenced Microsoft, Satya Nadella

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Yeah, Satya Nadella.

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He, uh, who came, came into the top job in about 2014 and decided to really

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shift the culture, uh, from one of knowing to, one of learning to, to, to

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put the idea of growth mindset and, and stretching and taking risks, and even

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having things go wrong as part of the way Microsoft needed to operate together.

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Well, the way Nadela put it was that we're really, we have been for a long

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time because of our success, we've turned into a culture of know-it-alls, right?

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And he says, I want us to be a culture of learn it alls.

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Now human beings are naturally predisposed to having the sense that we know.

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We look around, we think we're seeing reality.

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We don't think, oh, I'm seeing reality filtered through my background, biases,

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expectations, expertise, and so forth.

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We think we, we think we know.

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And in fact we don't know everything, right?

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We need to get in the habit of choosing, learning over knowing.

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That's such a great concept because I can imagine the difficulty from

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being a know-it-all to to learning.

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So how did you get them to shift to that mindset?

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You know, it's not one thing, it's, it's, it's a handful of related, supportive,

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complimentary factors in including going back to basics, going back to

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first principles of what do the, what do the customers really need from us?

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How can we, how can we help our customers, our corporate customers,

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by and large, solve their problems effectively with our software, you know?

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And, and, and that means becoming not just an order taker, you

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know, we've got, we've got.

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The software that virtually every single business in the world

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has to have just to operate.

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So how, how many users do you have?

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Okay.

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Sign here.

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Send a check.

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Instead, starting to really understand them and team up with

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them to help them use our technology to better solve their problems,

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their, um, for, for their customers.

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So it's a very different mindset and once you, once you, once you help

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people shift to that mindset, it engages their problem solving brains.

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It engages their, their willingness to, you know, to get curious, uh,

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about the opportunities, the things that they could do and, and, uh,

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and help their customers solve.

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And that's a, that is a better mindset for virtually any company in any industry.

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But it, this is a, was a particularly good, um, case

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study around making that shift.

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Nowadays where a lot organizations are working.

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Remotely, you know, people are working from home.

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How can you create psychological safety in that kind of environment?

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Well, you know, I have written about this, um, and, and it's something,

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it's something that has to be done with a little bit of a heavy hand.

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And, and by that I mean assume if you're working remotely, if you're meet, if

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you're not seeing people at all, that's one thing, or seeing people in, in

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mediated, um, meetings through, through technology, don't make the mistake of

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assuming that if people have something to say, they'll say it, or that people

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feel psychologically safe to contribute their knowledge, their questions,

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their expertise, their concerns.

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In fact, assume it's probably not present, especially in the remote workplace.

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And then once you, once you make that assumption, you realize, I guess I'm

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gonna have to do something to bring those.

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Bring those voices, bring those thoughts forward.

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And the something that one has to do ranges from the simple

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act of asking questions.

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You know, Henry, what's on your mind?

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What do you, what are you seeing out there?

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Um, what are you excited about?

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What are you struggling with?

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So that you feel your voice is invited into this conversation.

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So that's simple sort of behavioral invitation that it's safe.

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We want to hear from you.

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And relatedly monitor your response, especially in remote work.

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People are looking very closely at your, at your face, at, at times in

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a way that, you know, in a, in a room we might be a little bit less clued

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in to the, the facial expression.

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So we have to be quite thoughtful in how we're responding to people

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and appreciative about what they're saying and not punishing people

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for saying, um, you know, they need help or, or they have a concern or

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they have a different point of view.

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Another thing in remote work is you can be, you can be a lot more, um,

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systematic in your use of tools.

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You can, you can use the polling functions, you can use the chat function.

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You can, you can, um, explicitly do a round, you know, we're going to, we're

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gonna just walk through the screen of faces to have everybody weigh in.

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So it's a lot like life in person, but with a heavier hand, with more

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structure, more intent, more, more deliberateness around both the importance

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of hearing from people and making it safe for that to happen and, and the,

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uh, the worry that it could not happen.

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So that really sounds important.

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And I like the, the point that you make about monitoring your response

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because it can become so easy to ask a question, just to ask a question but

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not actually really hear, so that person felt that they're being listened to.

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Yes.

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You know, it's, it's, um, psychological safety is often thought

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of as a speaking up culture, but it's also a listening up culture.

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if you're not listening and really looking like you're listening and

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looking like you, you're interested, which best be interested, then it,

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it will die out pretty quickly.

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So, coming to, to the, your new book, the Right Kind of Wrong, tell us about the

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difference between basic mistakes, complex mistakes, and intelligent mistakes.

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I will say, I actually distinguish between the term mistake and failure.

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Many people don't right in, in colloquial, um, language.

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Sometimes people say they, they use the words interchangeably.

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But mistake has a, the, the technical definition of a mistake or an error,

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they're synonymous is that there was a right way to do it there, you know,

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there was a recipe or a process to follow and you accidentally deviated from it.

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Right?

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So that's a mistake.

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And many failures are caused by mistakes for sure.

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But there are many failures also that are not caused by mistakes.

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They are the.

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The disappointing results of an experiment in new territory, right?

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So there, if there's no existing knowledge about how to get a result,

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you're trying to get, it's not a mistake.

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So for example, if you go on a, a blind date with someone, a friend

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of a friend, and someone thought you'd really like each other, but

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you don't, um, it's not a mistake.

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It was smart to take the risk, right?

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It was smart to go on the date and, and, and see.

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There was good reason to believe it might work, but it was a failure 'cause

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you didn't it, it didn't click right.

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You didn't really wanna see to see that person again.

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So, so a failure, not a mistake.

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And now that preamble helps me distinguish between basic failures, complex

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failures, and intelligent failures.

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But basic failure is the kind that is indeed caused by mistake.

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We're in, we're in familiar territory.

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Um, there's a, there's a right way to do something, you know,

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make the chocolate chip cookies or what have you, and by mistake, you

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forgot to put in the sugar, right?

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They taste awful or they don't taste very good anyway, right?

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So that's, that's a failed batch of cookies, um, because of this, this

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little mistake, uh, that was made.

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Um, basic mistakes have just a single cause.

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Um, sometimes they're big.

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There are plane crashes that were the result of a basic failure, a

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basic failure to turn the anti-ice on, for example, when it should have

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been on in a cold, icy winter day.

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Um, and of course that can be, that's a tragic failure, but in my categorization,

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it's still, it's still basic.

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And I hope you hear me as saying, because I mean to, basic failures are preventable.

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And when we're at our best, whether as individuals or

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organizations, we're preventing as many basic failures as possible.

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If in, in fact, we can aspire to prevent all of them.

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Now, a complex failure is multi causal.

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Um, they're the kinds of perfect storms that happen when a handful

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of factors come together in just the wrong way to produce a failure.

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But any one of those factors on their own would not have been

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sufficient to cause a failure.

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So, small deviations, you know, there's a, um, let's say you, you failed to

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make a delivery for a key corporate customer, um, because you, your supplier

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didn't bring you enough last time.

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And then there was a, you know, some, some employees who were sick so

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they couldn't come to work that day.

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You know, a bunch of things that if only one of them had happened, you would've

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been okay, but because the perfect storm, you have a complex failure.

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Complex failures are also theoretically.

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Largely, not entirely, but preventable.

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When we're at our best, we're picking up the small signals of, of problems, and

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we're catching and correcting on the fly.

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So those are both, you know, not good, not worth celebrating.

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Um, they're part, they're part of life, but they're not, um, they're not something

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we want to aspire to have more of.

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Intelligent failures, on the other hand, are the kinds of failures that

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we should in our lives and in our.

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Companies aspire to have more.

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They are the undesired results of thoughtful forays into new territory.

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Meaning they are failed experiments, right?

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So a failure is intelligent.

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If it's in pursuit of a goal, you know, maybe it's a life

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partner, maybe it's a new product development, project in new territory.

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You can't, you can't just look it up on the internet to find out how to do it.

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And you've done your homework, right?

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You've done some good solid thinking to lead you to believe this might work

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and it's as small as possible, right?

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So an intelligent failure, um, you don't invest more time, money,

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resources than you have to to get the next bit of knowledge that you need.

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And those are quintessential activities in R&D, of course in science, of

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course, elite athletes, of course.

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But they're, um, they're part of progress in any field on

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the leading edge of any field.

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so I'm trying to process, as you said about the difference between

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like the basic mistakes that, you know, what you described as mistakes,

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failure.

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basic failure, and understanding that, um, having an intelligent approach

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means that doing something differently.

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So even though that something may have been done the way before, like

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you had to process a procedure that you've been doing before, but you're

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gonna do something differently, that is now turned as an intelligent

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Yes.

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I mean, it's, you're, you're, you're deliberately or

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consciously trying to make.

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Progress in somewhat unknown territory, you know, and that doesn't mean you have

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to be a scientist on the, you know, um, leading edge of some scientific field.

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It could be just, you know, trying to find a life partner and you

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have to go on some, some dates that, that don't work out, right?

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Um, in fact, most of them don't work out.

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But fortunately, you know, all you need is one, right?

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That, that, that, that does work out.

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And, and so

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You have to go through those disappointments,

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right.

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You're willing to endure the disappointments of things that don't work

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out in new territory because, um, the reward is, is enough when it does, right?

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Which whereas, you know, you shouldn't be willing to endure the failure of,

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you know, a bad batch of biscuits because if you were paying attention,

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you could do it right, right?

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Now, I know this is obvious, it's sort of obvious in retrospect, but the way

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we talk about failures in the, in, especially in the, in the corporate

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world, you know, it's either the happy talk, you know, fail off and, uh,

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you know, break, break things, you know, failure's so great, or it's the,

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come on, I live in the real world.

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Failure's not an option.

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And the truth is both rhetorics have validity, but they're

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context dependent, right?

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So you should never be failing fast.

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On the assembly line, right?

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You don't do, you know, you, you should be executing beautifully, right?

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Whereas, whereas in the r and d lab, of course, you have to be doing this.

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Or if you're an entrepreneur in a Startup, you wanna find out quickly

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the things that work and don't work.

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And, and that's gonna involve failures along the way.

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So our, our rhetoric has just been a little bit, um, either, omnibus

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or sort of one size fits all, which just doesn't really make sense and,

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and I think that's led people to be either confused or anxious or both.

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So at Happy, we talk about celebrating mistakes, so it sounds like we should

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be talking about celebrating failures.

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We should, you know, I think we should celebrate people's willingness

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to speak up about mistakes.

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You don't, nobody really, I mean, in an be, let's be honest, nobody

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really wants their mistake celebrated.

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Like, okay, I made a mistake.

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I mean, it was like, it was somewhere between stupid and

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absolutely understandable.

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But I don't want that celebrated.

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But I absolutely wanna be a part of a team or a company where we truly celebrate

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our honesty, our speed of, of doing that.

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But, but I do know that one of the things that people at Happy Love is

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the fact that if they take a risk, if they do something new, if they

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do something different, then if it doesn't work out, we'll celebrate it.

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And that, that.

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Yeah.

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No, that's exact.

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That's an intelligent failure and that's absolutely worth celebrating.

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In fact, I wish more companies did it.

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Because it, at first, it sends the message that it's okay to take risks.

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In fact, it's good we, we applaud your risk taking.

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Second of all, it shares the knowledge quickly, 'cause people like to come to

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a celebration and you know, they hear about it and then that means they're

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less at risk for making the same mistake.

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You know, I mean, sorry, the same failure a second time in your

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company, 'cause it shouldn't, you shouldn't be so happy the second time.

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And then third, thirdly, it helps people speak up quickly.

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I think if they know they're gonna get a happy response, they, they

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will sort of, instead of letting it fester, they'll speak up quickly.

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And I've read somewhere where you talked about that.

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You know, when you go through that failure that actually, you know,

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where we have the fear of, um, fear of failure, when you do feel , that

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you get that joy, you know, happy.

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We're about joy, creating joy in the workplace, but actually that's what

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can come from failing feeling right.

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Cause we've got the knowledge, you know, we, you can celebrate the fact.

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In fact, you know, you don't, you can celebrate the fact of trying hard.

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You can celebrate the fact of, you know, getting some new insights and

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new knowledge, you know, even though things didn't go the way we had hoped.

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You can celebrate the continued commitment to that area of, you know, of work

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or contribution, and the, all of that is really, truly worth celebrating.

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And it's also worth celebrating that our signals are so finely tuned that we

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catch things quickly and collectively.

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Now, in the later part of the book, you talk about how we have to take

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responsibility, and I'd love the example that you put in about, uh, Barack Obama.

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That is a great story.

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So, um, healthcare.gov, I don't know if this really made it across the

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pond, but, um, this was the website set set up by the, uh, uh, Obama

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administration to administer, uh the Accountable Care Act, which was law.

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So, you know, the, the law got passed.

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And, and by the way, some of the backstory to this failure is that in a way,

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lawmakers, that's what they do they make laws, they sort of assume, and presidents

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as well, they were kind of seeing the passage of the law as the victory,

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which it was, it was a huge victory.

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But, but then not really recognizing adequately that getting it implemented

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on a website was going to be an enormous innovation project.

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And, and the reason for that is you're essentially setting up a two-sided

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market that has 50 different state regulatory demands and, and, you

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know, uh, uh, 300 million different kind of um, healthcare uh, needs by

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each person being slightly unique.

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Um, and so that's actually a huge project.

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That's not just a website.

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Like you put up a website and you say, here's our, you know, here's what we do.

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It's a, it's a two-sided marketplace, and it's a, it's a really big, um, it's

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a really big deal, but they didn't quite appreciate it or listen closely enough

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to the people who did appreciate it.

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And so it crashed.

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I mean, it crashed on like the first day.

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It was, and it was, you know, it was, it was beyond embarrassing because this,

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this law was essentially almost, almost synonymous with Obama himself, right?

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It was, it was his crowning achievement.

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It was, um, really, really big deal.

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So this of course allowed his detractors to have a field day that

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this thing was crashing, uh, so badly.

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Um, now fast forward in, and, they fixed it.

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They fixed it actually quite quickly, quite impressively through agile

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methods and so forth, getting the right team and the right expertise on it.

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But, Obama was offered, you know, by several senior leaders, um,

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the opportunity to just, you know, stay away from it, where

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they'd say, I'll take the blame.

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Um, and he said, and he said, no.

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You know, it's, I, I have to take, I have to step up and, and

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apologize and take responsibility, uh, for this 'cause Buck stops here.

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I don't think that would've been the case with the next president, would it?

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Uh, let's see.

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How do you spell opposite, right?

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With the next president?

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It would be exactly the opposite, right?

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The next president, and it's not, I mean, that's, this isn't, um, insulting.

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This is just factual.

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He has not yet once publicly ever said anything that was his fault, that he

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had any, you know, causal responsibility to anything that went south.

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But it's, you know, it's night and day really on that, sorry to say,

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um, not, not needing to go into those waters, but leadership is not easy.

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Yeah.

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And I think I heard somewhere where you talked about leadership is a

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responsibility of everybody, not just the senior leaders, but anybody in the team.

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Yes, yes.

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So leader, you know, the leader is a role.

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Leadership is an activity, right?

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Leadership is, is, um, leadership describes behaviors that influence others

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in positive ways, and, and help people, you know, bring their best selves forward.

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And peers can do that for each other, right?

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Even, even subordinates can occasionally do that for you, right?

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Well, well, it goes back to the story of how you got to psychological safety.

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You said it's about the team working together and communicating together that

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one brings out the best, but also be able to, to, to voice any failures, mistakes,

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or, you know, challenges that come up.

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It is.

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It's, um, yeah, it's, it's a team sport to create a learning environment.

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Now, I, uh, one I love about your book.

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Is that you have great stories, and great examples.

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Tell us, tell us about Barbe-Nicole Clicquot.

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Yeah, sBarbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquotrd, Ponsardin was her maiden

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name, was born in, in 1777 in, in the Champaign region of France,

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actually born into a textile family.

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They, they were, they were bus business, uh, folks in the textile business.

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Um, but she, she, she was, um, married to, uh, Francois Clicquot.

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And, uh, they, the two of them, the young couple had the dream of starting,

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uh, a wine business and starting a, um, and, and this was the Champagne region.

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And they were quite intrigued by, you know, champagnes and the little bubbles.

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Now back then champagne was not what it is today.

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It was sort of cloudy and in fact, Barbe-Nicole helped, um, helped create

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the clear beverage that we know, uh, today, and that is, you know, associated

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with celebration around the world.

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Um, but tragically her husband died of, of influenza, when she was 26.

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One would imagine, and everyone certainly expected at that time

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that she would require quietly to the countryside with her children.

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And, but she was determined, uh, to continue this dream that she and

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Francois had of building this business.

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And what makes it a great story in my view is, you know, here is this dogged

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entrepreneur two centuries ago, um, who not, you know, not only succeeds

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wildly, but really creating one of the most famous and, and legendary

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brands and businesses in the world.

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But it is a story where that success is, is not automatic and not easy.

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It's a story of, of failure after failure after failure, setback after setback.

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Some caused by bad harvests, some caused by storms that, uh, got ships derailed.

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Some got, the product exploded in the ship's hall.

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I mean, you can't, even.

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A war breaks out over here.

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You can't imagine a more, a more challenging, rocky, uh, path forward.

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Um, but she persists and she makes several real technical innovations

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in how the wine is, is made that, that, um, are quite important.

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Um, and, and of course it's, it's ultimately a story of just

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tremendous and enduring success.

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So, Amy, tell us what are your three best ideas for happy workplace?

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I guess, My, my three best, practices are to, frame the work that lies

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ahead as necessarily uncertain and novel into a certain degree,

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sometimes to a very light high degree, and sometimes to a lower degree.

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You know, in a sense, anticipate not the, not just the likelihood,

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but the very real likelihood of setbacks and, the experiments.

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This is, this is the, you know, we have to sort of, really invite people to engage

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in experiments and, provide the resources and the questions and, um, the environment

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where people can then experiment and experiment thoughtfully together.

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Opportunities for brainstorming, what are, what are some good

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things that we could try?

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And then also respond in ways that destigmatize failure, as you

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have already illustrated several times, you know, the celebrating

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of the mistakes and the failures.

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Making sure people feel okay about themselves.

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In fact, more than okay that they feel that their contributions to our learning

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have been substantial and appreciated.

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That productive forward-looking response is absolutely crucial.

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Amy, you have been awesome.

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I could listen to you all day.

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No, it is brilliant.

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Um, I love the work that you have done, and I hope you continue with it.

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And and Psychological Safety is on all of our courses.

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Oh, thank you.

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I'm so grateful.

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I mean, Amy is brilliant.

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First thing that got me was when she was talking about the know

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it all, Stop being a know it all.

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And Henry, there's so many people that know it all, and

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I've come across know it alls.

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I mean, sometimes I'm a know it all, but Yeah.

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Yeah, yeah.

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No, I can admit sometimes we know it all, but it's the whole point of

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being able to learn over knowing.

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So let's learn more rather than holding on to what it is that we know.

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Well I love the fact the the the book is about, It's about, effectively,

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this is about celebrating, uh, not mistakes, but failures.

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And I'd love the, and that, that story, Barack Obama, that

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he took full responsibility.

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Even though, you know, he wasn't involved in the detail he was involved in, in the

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website, but he took full responsibility.

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And that's, that's what we, that's what we all need to do.

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Yes, definitely, definitely.

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I mean, there's so much more Henry, but I'll say, share your thoughts.

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Tell us what you got from this as well.

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So don't forget to leave your comments and your reviews and subscribe.

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Subscribe, definitely subscribe.

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And, uh, check out Happy co uk, which is where you'll find all of our courses

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and all of our, all of our information.

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That's right, and don't forget to get Amy's book.

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Yes.

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definitely.

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Get Amy's book.

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So see you next time.

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And let's continue creating joyful workplaces.