The Strategic Imperative of Psychological Safety and Organizational Error Management

  • Amy C. Edmondson
  • Paul J. Verdin


Despite considerable discussion in the management literature about the need for flexible strategies and agile learning organizations, many—if not most—large organizations and their strategy processes remain top-down, slow to change, and fraught with obstacles to learning. A “strategy-as-learning” approach is presented that contrasts with the dominant conception of strategy-as-planning. Conceptualizing and practicing the work of organizational strategy as a learning process implies that strategy is about developing good questions and thoughtful hypotheses to be tested through execution. This produces a mode of operating called execution-as-learning.

Strategy-as-learning requires psychological safety, which enables speaking up, dissenting, error reporting, candidly discussing risks, and practicing organizational error management. Without these behaviors, especially at the executive levels, organizations are at risk of experiencing avoidable strategic failures.



We gratefully acknowledge the superb research assistance of Marie Godts, Charles Hoffreumon and Irene Ingardi (SBS-EM), the support of the Baillet-Latour Chair in Error Management at SBS-EM (ULB) and its senior research fellow Dr. Vincent Giolito, and the Harvard Business School Division of Research.


  1. Baer, M., and M. Frese. 2003. Innovation is not enough: Climates for initiative and psychological safety, process innovations, and firm performance. Journal of Organizational Behavior 24 (1): 45–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bohmer, R., L.R. Feldman, E.M. Ferlins, and A.C. Edmondson. 2009. Columbia’s final mission. Brighton, MA: Harvard Business Press.
  3. Carroll, J.S. 1998. Organizational learning activities in high-hazard industries: The logics underlying self-analysis. Journal of Management Studies 35 (6): 699–717.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Chase, R.B., and D.M. Stewart. 1994. Make your service fall-safe. Sloan Management Review 35 (3): 35.Google Scholar
  5. Christensen, C.M., and M. Overdorf. 2000. Meeting the challenge of disruptive change. Harvard Business Review 78 (2): 66–77.Google Scholar
  6. Denuit, T., and M. Schmit. 2012. Managing growth and value creation – The Kaupthing case. Solvay Brussels School of Economics & Management Case Study, Brussels.Google Scholar
  7. Duhigg, C. 2017. Smarter faster better: The transformative power of real productivity. New York, NY: Random House.Google Scholar
  8. Duke Corporate Education. 2013. Leading in context (CEO Study).
  9. Edmondson, A., and P. Verdin. 2017. Your strategy should be a hypothesis you constantly adjust. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from
  10. Edmondson, A.C. 1996. Learning from mistakes is easier said than done: Group and organizational influences on the detection and correction of human error. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 32 (1): 5–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. ———. 1999. Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly 44 (2): 350–383.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. ———. 2003. Speaking up in the operating room: How team leaders promote learning in interdisciplinary action teams. Journal of Management Studies 40 (6): 1419–1452.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. ———. 2011. Strategies for learning from failure. Harvard Business Review 89 (4): 48–55. (April 2012).Google Scholar
  14. ———. 2012. Teaming: How organizations learn, innovate, and compete in the knowledge economy. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  15. Edmondson, A.C., and J.P. Mogelof. 2006. Explaining psychological safety in innovation teams: Organizational culture, team dynamics, or personality. Creativity and Innovation in Organizational Teams, 109–136.Google Scholar
  16. Edmondson, A.C., M.A. Roberto, R.M. Bohmer, E.M. Ferlins, and L.R. Feldman. 2005. The recovery window: Organizational learning following ambiguous threats. In Organization at the limit: Lessons from the Columbia disaster, ed. W. Starbuck and M. Farjoun. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  17. Garvin, D.A., A.C. Edmondson, and F. Gino. 2008. Is yours a learning organization? Harvard Business Review 86 (3): 109.Google Scholar
  18. Giles, D.L. 2013. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill: The politics of crisis response. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School Case Study.Google Scholar
  19. Giolito, V., and P. Verdin. 2017. Fortis and ABN-AMRO: Managing the largest acquisition in the banking industry. Case Study. Thecasecentre.Org. Retrieved from
  20. Giolito, V., P. Verdin, M. Hamwi, and Y. Oulaladj. (2018). Volkswagen Über Alles. Case Study. Thecasecentre.Org. Retrieved from
  21. Giolito, V.J. 2016. Société Générale & Kerviel: Managing huge operational errors. Solvay Brussels School of Economics & Management Case Study, Brussels.Google Scholar
  22. ———. 2017. Sensemaking and sensegiving in strategic error management. Solvay Brussels School of Economics & Management Working Paper, Brussels.Google Scholar
  23. Giolito, V.J., and P. Verdin. 2016a. From wrong to right – Error management conference and summit report. Solvay Brussels School of Economics & Management, Brussels.Google Scholar
  24. ———. 2016b. From wrong to right: A multi-source investigation of organizational error management by top executives. Presented at the AOM annual meeting, Anaheim.Google Scholar
  25. Goodman, P.S., R. Ramanujam, J.S. Carroll, A.C. Edmondson, D.A. Hofmann, and K.M. Sutcliffe. 2011. Organizational errors: Directions for future research. Research in Organizational Behavior 31: 151–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hackman, J.R. 2003. Learning more by crossing levels: Evidence from airplanes, hospitals, and orchestras. Journal of Organizational Behavior 24 (8): 905–922.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hagen, J. 2013. Confronting mistakes: Lessons from the aviation industry when dealing with error. Houndmills/Basingstoke/Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  28. Hamel, G., and C.K. Prahalad. 2010. Strategic intent. Brighton, MA: Harvard Business Press.Google Scholar
  29. Hamwi, M., Y. Oualhadj, V. Giolito, and P. Verdin. 2017. Making Volkswagen great again. Solvay Brussels School of Economics & Management Case Study, Brussels.Google Scholar
  30. Hayes, R.H. 1985. Strategic planning – Forward in reverse? Harvard Business Review, November 1.
  31. Huy, Q. N. (2016). Five reasons most companies fail at strategy execution. INSEAD Blog, January 4.
  32. Kachaner, N., K. King, and S. Stewart. 2015. Four best practices for strategic planning. BCG Perspectives, April.
  33. Kahneman, D. 2013. Thinking, fast and slow (Reprint). New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.Google Scholar
  34. Kim, W.C., and R. Mauborgne. 1999. Strategy, value innovation, and the knowledge economy. Sloan Management Review 40 (3): 41.Google Scholar
  35. Leinwand, P., and C.R. Mainardi 2016. Strategy that works: How winning companies close the strategy-to-execution gap. Brighton, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.Google Scholar
  36. Liedtka, J.M., and J.W. Rosenblum. 1996. Shaping conversations: Making strategy, managing change. California Management Review 39 (1): 141–157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Maitlis, S., and M. Christianson. 2014. Sensemaking in organizations: Taking stock and moving forward. The Academy of Management Annals 8 (1): 57–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Martin, R.L. 2010. The execution trap. Harvard Business Review.Google Scholar
  39. McGrath, R. 2013. Transient advantage. Harvard Business Review.Google Scholar
  40. Meyer, T. 2013. Why strategy implementation often fails. Human Capital Review.
  41. Mintzberg, H. 1987. Crafting strategy. Harvard Business Review, July.
  42. ———. 1990. Strategy formation: Schools of thought. Perspectives on Strategic Management 1968: 105–235.Google Scholar
  43. ———. 1993. The pitfalls of strategic planning. California Management Review 36 (1): 32–47. Scholar
  44. Nembhard, I.M., and A.C. Edmondson. 2006. Making it safe: The effects of leader inclusiveness and professional status on psychological safety and improvement efforts in health care teams. Journal of Organizational Behavior 27 (7): 941–966.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Nketia, B.A. 2016. The influence of open strategizing on organizational members’ commitment to strategy. Social and Behavioral Sciences, (235): 473–483. Scholar
  46. Norman, D.A. 1981. Categorization of action slips. Psychological Review 88 (1): 1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Oualhadj, Y., and V. Giolito. 2016. How do executives of big companies manage errors: The case of BP and the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010. Solvay Brussels School of Economics & Management Master Thesis, Brussels.Google Scholar
  48. Pascale, R.T. 1984. Perspectives on strategy: The real story behind Honda’s success. California Management Review 26 (3): 47–72. Scholar
  49. Perrow, C. 1982. President’s Commission and the normal accident. In Accident at Three Mile Island: The Human Dimensions.
  50. ———. 1984. Normal accidents: Living with high risk systems. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  51. Pietersen, W. 2010a. Strategic learning: How to be smarter than your competition and turn key insights into competitive advantage. New York: Wiley.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. ———. 2010b. Strategy as learning. The European Business Review 22 (4): 24–27.Google Scholar
  53. Reason, J. 1984. Lapses of attention in everyday life. In Varieties of attention, ed. R. Parasuraman and D.R. Davies, 515–549. Orlando: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  54. ———. 1994. Latent errors and systems disasters. In Social issues in computing, 128–176. McGraw-Hill.
  55. Roberto, M.R., R.M.J. Bohmer, and A.C. Edmondson. 2006. Facing ambiguous threats. Harvard Business Review 84 (11): 106–113.Google Scholar
  56. Roberts, K.H., and C. Libuser. 1993. From Bhopal to banking: Organizational design can mitigate risk. Organizational Dynamics 21 (4): 15–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Roxburgh, C. (2003). Hidden flaws in strategy. McKinsey Quarterly (2) (May): 26–39.Google Scholar
  58. Rudolph, J.W. 2003. Into the big muddy and out again: Error persistence and crisis management in the operating room. Chestnut Hill: Boston College. Scholar
  59. Rumelhart, D.E. 1980. Schemata: The building blocks of cognition. In Theoretical issues in reading comprehension: Perspectives from cognitive psychology, linguistics, artificial intelligence and education, ed. R.J. Spiro, B.C. Bruce, and W.F. Brewer, 33–58. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  60. Rumelt, R.P. 2012. Good strategy/bad strategy: The difference and why it matters. Strategic Direction 28 (8).
  61. Russo, J.E., and P.J. Schoemaker. 1989. Decision traps. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
  62. Salas, E., C.A. Bowers, and E. Edens. 2001. Improving teamwork in organizations: Applications of resource management training. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.Google Scholar
  63. Senge, P.M. 2010. The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization: First edition. New York, NY: Random House.Google Scholar
  64. Shingo, S. 1986. Zero quality control: Source inspection and the poka-yoke system. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.Google Scholar
  65. Sterling, J. 2003. Translating strategy into effective implementation: Dispelling the myths and highlighting what works. Strategy & Leadership 31 (3): 27–34. Scholar
  66. Sull, D., R. Homkes, and C. Sull. 2015. Why strategy execution unravels and what to do about it. Harvard Business Review.
  67. Tackx, K., and P. Verdin (2014). Can co-creation lead to better strategy? An exploratory research. Universite Libre de Bruxelles Working Papers 14–027.Google Scholar
  68. Tackx, K., S. Rothenberger, and P. Verdin. 2016. Is advertising for losers? An empirical study from a value creation and value capturing perspective. European Management Journal.
  69. The Economist Intelligence Unit. 2013. Why good strategies fail. Economist Intelligence Unit Perspective.
  70. Tucker, A.L., I.M. Nembhard, and A.C. Edmondson. 2007. Implementing new practices: An empirical study of organizational learning in hospital intensive care units. Management Science 53 (6): 894–907.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Vaara, E., and R. Whittington. 2012. Strategy-as-practice: Taking social practices seriously. Academy of Management Annals 6 (1): 285–336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Verdin, P., and K. Tackx. 2015. Are you creating or capturing value? A dynamic framework for sustainable strategy. Harvard Kennedy School Working Paper 36.
  73. Verdin, P., E. Cabocel, J. Celens, and F. Faelli. 2011. Making change work. What managers, executives and staff tell us that really matters. Review of Business & Economics 56: 244–269.Google Scholar
  74. Vuori, T.O., and Q.N. Huy. 2016. Distributed attention and shared emotions in the innovation process: How Nokia lost the smartphone battle. Administrative Science Quarterly 61 (1): 9–51. Scholar
  75. Weick, K.E. 1993. The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster. Administrative Science Quarterly 38: 628–652.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Weick, K.E., and K.H. Roberts. 1993. Collective mind in organizations: Heedful interrelating on flight decks. Administrative Science Quarterly 38: 357–381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Weick, K.E., K.M. Sutcliffe, and D. Obstfeld. 2000. High reliability: The power of mindfulness. Leader to Leader 17 (07).Google Scholar
  78. ———. 2005. Organizing and the process of sensemaking. Organization Science 16 (4): 409–421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Wernerfelt, B. 1984. A resource-based view of the firm. Strategic Management Journal 5 (2): 171–180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Zook, C., and J. Allen. 2012. Repeatability: Build enduring businesses for a world of constant change. Brighton, MA: Harvard Business Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Amy C. Edmondson
    • 1
  • Paul J. Verdin
    • 2
  1. 1.BostonUSA
  2. 2.BrusselsBelgium

Personalised recommendations