How many times have we heard, “Nothing breeds success like success?” In a study of the orbital launch vehicle industry by Peter M. Madsen and Vinit Desai the finding was that “organizations learn more effectively from failures than successes.” Their paper was published in the June 2010 edition of the Academy of Management Journal and reported by The Economist online in August.
While it seems logical that we can learn from our mistakes, what’s less clear is whether we learn more from our failures than our successes. However, from an intuitive perspective which accounts for the intense effect our emotions can have on our decision making, the fear of pain is much greater than the joy of gain. This is not only an anticipatory phenomenon but a historical one. In other words, we also learn more from feeling pain than from feeling gain. Moreover, Madsen and Desai found that the lesson learned through failure stayed with the organization longer than the one learned through success.
How do you maximize learning without having to experience a critical or fatal failure? Of the conclusions, one, which applies to intuitive approaches, is “greater flexibility towards meeting set goals.” This would allow employees to learn from smaller failures. They found that organizations which were “too tightly” focused on deadlines and profit margins gave their employees legitimate, implicit approval to discount, ignore or rationalize smaller failures containing valuable lessons.
Therefore, the next time everything goes according to plan, realize that something went wrong. Most likely it will be the failure to learn.