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Amy C. Edmondson, a behavioral scientist, recommends that we get comfortable with what she calls “intelligent failure.” We don’t like to fail, but when failure is “intelligent,” it leads to useful information and moves us forward in some way. For example, Thomas Edison discovered thousands of ways the incandescent light bulb did not work before he found the one way it did work. He failed intelligently.

We might think of Peter as one of Jesus’ intelligent failures. When Jesus called Peter, he did so with the goal of transforming him into a disciple-making leader. However, Peter did not become an apostle by hitting all the achievement marks along the way. He failed often. But each time he failed, Jesus used it as a teachable moment that made Peter wiser and more faithful going forward.

This year, what might happen if you set at least one ministry or leadership goal without being overly anxious about achieving success? What if the initial purpose behind your goal is to see what is possible? Bring a staff team or leadership group together and identify a challenge that requires more than a quick fix. Do your homework. Put a solid plan together and give it a try. According to Edmondson, the key is to implement a plan that risks a small failure. If the failure is too great — and this could be especially true in a congregational context — you might lose people’s confidence.

Western Christianity is going through a period of seismic change. We will have to try new approaches to almost everything we do. While we cannot predict the results of our experiments, we can certainly celebrate what does work — and learn from what does not.


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Before you go…

Did you know that many products we enjoy using every day were discovered accidentally? In many cases, a researcher attempted to solve one problem, but through the process of experimentation discovered an unexpected solution to a different problem.

For example, in 1968, Spencer Silver was a chemist working at 3M. He was supposed to invent a more powerful adhesive. After many failed attempts, he ended up with a relatively weak adhesive that became the perfect formula for the convenient, multicolored sticky notes we plaster on our refrigerators and the corners of our computer screens. Silver failed intelligently.

Give “failing intelligently” a shot. If the plan doesn’t work, you’ll probably be one step closer to the plan that does.

You can reach me and the Alban Weekly team at Until next week, keep leading!

Prince Rivers

Editor, Alban at Duke Divinity

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