Learn and Lead

About continual learning and leadership

Do we Learn More from Successes or Failures?

Amit Garg asks whether we learn more from successes than failure. He mentions an article on Science Daily that suggests brain cells learn more from successes than failures. Well, at least that’s how monkeys learn based on a research by scientists at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory according to the article. Do read the interesting conversation ongoing on his blog post.

Do organizations learn from successes? Do they even attempt at learning from successes? I don’t think organizations and managers do a good job at learning from successes. And I am as guilty as anyone else of this. The whole management review governance structures are built around learning from mistakes and ignoring successes. We have goals and measure progress against these. If our goals are consistently being met, there’s hardly any time spent on reviews. However if the goals aren’t met, or a perhaps a project has gone bad, we spend inordinate amount of time doing root cause analysis and identifying corrective actions. Of course root cause analysis and identify corrective actions are absolutely required and we really can’t afford not to do these. We do need to prevent problems from recurring and look for ways to continuously improve the process. However we hardly spend any time in learning what we might be doing right when goals are met, or from projects that went well.

We celebrate successes but don’t necessarily attempt to learn from them formally as much as we attempt to learn from mistakes. Our former Creative Director would go sore screaming at managers including me, (not literally, don’t get me wrong now) on why we weren’t looking at the 9 projects that went well instead of trying to find out why 1 project went bad.

Why don’t we learn from successes? Could it because it is harder to learn from successes? Or perhaps successes are expected from each of us and we are just doing our job when we succeed. And if we are already doing our job well, what’s to learn?

It would be interesting to know if there are any formal methods of learning from successes, like there are for learning from failures. Any best practices from organizations out there?

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Sreya Dutta said...

Great post Manish. I do believe this is true in every organization. But there are times when people realize this as a whole. Lets say a project went well by following a certain strategy. I believe that management does believe in reusing it in a future project to save time and repeat the success. So there are things we take forward even though we don't analyze it to the level of what was it that made the project succeed. It certainly wasn't that one strategy.

You raise some really good questions in the post, and I can only think of one reason. Somehow when things are going well even in real life, you start taking it for granted. When something goes wrong that's when you jump on the situation and start wondering about what it was. So its probably human nature to take to the comfort in good times. I think the recent recession is the best example. Anyway not meaning to digress I was really making a point here ... but for organizations to continually succeed and grow, getting answers to your questions becomes critical. I think it might be great to somehow start a discussion in the community and get some clarity and direction on how could one possibly measure what went right.

Thanks for sharing this and to Amit for asking such a question!


Rachna said...

Failure or fear mostly, I'd say. Interestingly, some 'entities' never learn. Corporations can be fairly stubborn - never learn just take success for granted. Even more scarily, pretend or fake the learning and make the right sounds.

Sonia said...

It is true u learn when you are most receptive. You are receptive when energy levels are high that comes from positive situations. I have always wondered and felt that root cause analysis of failures are worthless exercise. Infact I had at one time asked one of my manager's why don't we analyze our successes. But the trend is to analyze failures and cause more failures.

Manish Mohan said...

I am not sure if root cause analysis of failures are worthless exercise. We still need to understand what went wrong and what do we need to change. However I do agree with Sonia, we don't spend more time in analyzing successes. Perhaps it because we take success for granted, as Rachna and Shreya suggest.

BunchberryFern said...

This one keeps on running. Here's an article which says the exact opposite to the Amit Garg one:

I've always felt that I learned more from mistakes. Perhaps this is due to vanity, though. I simply 'feel' mistakes more than successes. A more modest person might learn from success more.

Maybe success or failure is less important than resonant sound, bright colours, wonderful textures?

If you had to categorise life's most memorable events, it's unlikely you would cut along success/failure lines.

Amit Garg said...

(Posted this message as a comment on my own post in response to Manish and Shreya's thoughts)
Manish and Shreya bring up a great point to this discussion.
I agree as organizations we are focused on learning from mistakes. And even though we celebrate success, we don’t really learn much from it. Celebrating success makes heroes out of the people/team involved in achieving the said success, motivates the team (and other teams too) to perform better in future, and hopefully that helps them trying harder for success by not make many mistakes. Unfortunately, celebrating success does not guarantee learning as, I think, there is no conscious attempt to achieve that. However, I do believe that individuals do pick up (in other words ‘learn’) best practices while attempting to achieve success. This is purely an individual activity/initiative and the organization has NO role in this. What organization can (and most try to) do well is to evaluate individual progress on KRAs, apart from celebrating team success.
Learning from success can (and should) be formalized in organizations. Brainstorming (as Shreya mentions) could be one good method. May be we could create Learning Documents after every project is completed & signed-off. The key there is to focus on both what went well and what didn’t. Bringing conscious focus to learn from a project could well do the trick.

Amit Garg said...

BunchberryFern, thanks for sharing the research. I am more in tune with this one than the one I quoted. Also, I too 'feel' that I learn MORE from my mistakes. Vanity it is I think!
Wondering - is it vanity that increases the energy levels - that Sonia refers to above?

Manish Mohan said...

Thanks BunchberryFern and Amit. Learning from mistakes is definitely winning this debate.

Blah said...

If you have people on board who have had a success in a certain type of endeavor, they'll bring all the experience into play and ensure that things go much like they did in a previous successful endeavor. Root cause analysis etc. happens when there is no prior experience and, as a consequence, the failure happens. For instance, imagine a project team successfully handling a client for some time and then the project is handed over to a new team. Now if the new team has some wisdom and humility, or the older team is altruistic (which unfortunately seldom happens), then past experiences can be used to good effect. But if things dont go as they should, then the new team will learn not from the previous success of the older team but from their own mistakes, which could have costed dearly too. Like Schank suggests, learning is not just about failing but failing in a safe environment (oh, the good old e-learning), which means that one shouldnt be taking chances and must learn form the success first. Even if it's someone else's success, it still is a success. (But if it's failure, it's only your failure! :) )

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are my personal opinions. Content published here is not read or approved in advance by my employers and does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of my employers.

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