Safe-to-Fail Probes

A complex system has no repeating relationships between cause and effect, is highly sensitive to small interventions and cannot be determined by outcome based targets, hence the need for experimentation; hence when dealing with complex systems there is the need for experimentation. Safe-fail Probes are small-scale experiments that approach issues from different angles, in small and safe-to-fail ways, the intent of which is to approach issues in small, contained ways to allow emergent possibilities to become more visible. The emphasis, then, is not on ensuring success or avoiding failure, but in allowing ideas that are not useful to fail in small, contained and tolerable ways. The ideas that do produce observable benefits can then be adopted and amplified when the complex system has shown the appropriate response to its stimulus. Where systems and the environments in which they exist become increasingly complex, what is known and what can be planned for becomes less certain – introducing and increasing organisational tolerance for failure is more crucial than ever.

Typical Uses

  • Safe-fail probes are usually designed to follow Model Creation by social construction.
  • Making decisions in situations of high uncertainty.
  • As an alternative to traditional strategic planning which place excessive emphasis on ideal future states.
  • Stimulating starting conditions for innovation.
  • Engender support and consensus for new initiatives to contribute to meaningful change.


This activity can be carried out either with individuals, in pairs or in small groups. It is best carried out in small workgroup with relative sizes of three to four participants. The larger the number of groups and participants, the greater the variety of perspectives and iterations. If working with groups of people, carefully review the participants of your workshop to optimise cross-silo grouping of members. This will help produce the tacit outcome of promoting engagement and cooperation amongst people from different departments, ranks of authority and/or organisations

Have organised working spaces for each group; ideally working in circles with writing surfaces

Set some ground rules for the participants – on top of the specifications and guidelines laid out in the worksheet, it would also be helpful to create a simple guideline for people to assess their own proposals on. (eg. this could be as simple as agreeing to consider any idea that has a remote possibility of creating improvement; or to consider ideas that can only be carried out within a certain time period). This is not critical, but provides a simple guideline and consistent position to adopt when considering proposals for experiments.

Things You'll Need

  • Worksheets with certain guidelines and areas of concern can be prepared. These help give heuristics to the type of experiments participants should be thinking about. (e.g. What the probe is? Rationale behind the probe? How to put the experiment into action? How to observe success of experiment?)
  • As these experiments need to be practical and actionable, specific guidelines should also be worked out and specified - such as the time-frame and budgetary limitations that the experiment should work within. Examples of Actions Forms are at the links below.


Supporting templates




Task Comment

With one session, each group could be instructed to come up with a minimum of 1 to 3 properly developed ideas.

For each experiment to be valid its outcome must be observable, not to measure necessarily but to allow the simple rule of amplification or dampening of good or bad patterns to be put into operation.

Facilitators can time these individual steps so that groups manage their time properly. This portion of the activity could last about 15 to 20 minutes.

Next each proposal is fleshed out, costed and subject to challenge and review, but nothing is ruled out unless rationing of resource is required.

Allowing participants to voice their opinions gives the opportunity for people to think through the ideas suggested. This gives a chance for different perspectives and approaches to be considered. This provides the groups with a few working ideas they can further develop.

Finally, the proposed experiments can then be reviewed for common elements, and resourced along with set up of monitoring and review processes. 

Properly fleshed out and developed experiments – with common ideas compared and put together for reinforced experiments; and unique ideas further developed.

The outputs from Safe-fail Probes can form the basis for proposals for new initiatives. The cross-silo engagement also forms a basis for assembling project teams for these experiments. Moving forward, these viable and well fleshed-out proposals can then be picked up for experimentation in the system.

Do's and Dont's

  • Do encourage thinking outside of traditional boundaries. Safe-fail probes require and enhance the ability for exploration

  • Do give interesting examples of oblique solutions that illustrate the importance of not thinking in direct, causal relationships.

  • Do make use of Safe-fail probes to promote cross-silo and cross-rank collaboration and sensitisation.

  • Facilitators should, however, be careful not to give direct examples relating directly to the organisation as this often as the effect of patterning how participants start thinking about their problem. Oblique examples from different industries are best for conveying the principle behind this method.

  • Don't get involved with the content in any way, your views are not a part of this process