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16 Sep 2010

The Success of Failure and the Failure of Success

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.

7 Responses

  1. Daniel Bobke

    This is so true…as long as you are open to learning from the failure. Human nature is such that we often let failure defeat us – and then there will be no learning. Most of the great business thinkers out there have written about their failures being their biggest teachers.

    1. Thank you, Daniel, again for the comment. Your qualification is an important one and a big one for people to overcome. Defeatism is definitely a dangerous side-effect of the failing process.

  2. Loved this post Mike! I can’t agree with it more. In business, I learned the most when my managers gave me latitude which sometimes did lead to failure. In Jiu Jitsu, when we learn a technique knowing it is nothing compared to trying to apply it. We must try and fail many times before the technique can be learned and internalized. Here’s to failure! 🙂

    1. Mike Lehr

      Thank you for the compliment, Jason. I appreciate it. I didn’t know that about Jiu Jitsu, thank you for sharing. Yes, I agree, here’s to failure! Trial and err is still the best learning method around, proven effective for thousands of years! ~Mike

  3. Good stuff Mike, I think it’s really important to recognise that learning from failure takes time and means experiencing the emotional pain of failure and then finding acceptance. I hear a lot of people saying “I learnt a lot from that failure” yet they seem to repeat the same pattern of behaviour that they exhibited before the fail. We must be careful we don’t exalt our “learning” as a way of avoiding actually going through the difficulty of failure towards real and deep, lasting learning….

    1. Mike Lehr

      Thank you for visiting, Toby.

      You’re right. That does happen. A certain percentage will consciously pay lip service to what they learned. Another significant percentage though will actually believe they are doing things differently when they might not be doing so on a level to make a difference. Often the small changes we make can seem very big to us while appearing small or non-existent to others. Moreover, it’s very possible for us to feel we’re making a big change, experience little real change and then conclude the newly learned idea has no value for us.

      Yes, I agree, we must be careful we don’t exalt our learning as a way of avoiding going through the difficult change to implement what we learn. We also need to be careful that we don’t assume people are consciously doing this; they are usually unaware that they are. Resolving the cognitive dissonance in us is a very powerful delusionary force leading us to believe we are doing things that we are not.

      Again, thank you for visiting and leaving your insights. I welcome seeing you again soon.

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