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Is Failure A Better Teacher Than Success?

Why we (sometimes) learn more from failure than success—I wonder where the boundaries of this are? It doesn’t seem to apply to sports teams but it does seem to apply to organizations like NASA.

While success is surely sweeter than failure, it seems failure is a far better teacher, and organizations that fail spectacularly often flourish more in the long run, according to a new study by Vinit Desai, assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado Denver Business School.

In his research, Desai found that “the knowledge gained from success was often fleeting while knowledge from failure stuck around for years, but there is a tendency in organizations to ignore failure or try not to focus on it. Managers may fire people or turn over the entire workforce while they should be treating the failure as a learning opportunity.

The researchers said they discovered little “significant organizational learning from success” but added “we do not discount the possibility that it may occur in other settings.”

Whenever you have a failure it causes a company to search for solutions and when you search for solutions it puts you as an executive in a different mindset, a more open mindset,” said Desai. He said the airline industry is one sector of the economy that has learned from failures, at least when it comes to safety.

“Despite crowded skies, airlines are incredibly reliable. The number of failures is miniscule,” he said. “And past research has shown that older airlines, those with more experience in failure, have a lower number of accidents.”

Desai doesn’t recommend seeking out failure in order to learn. Instead, he advised organizations to analyze small failures and near misses to glean useful information rather than wait for major failures. “The most significant implication of this study… is that organizational leaders should neither ignore failures nor stigmatize those involved with them,” he concluded in the June edition of the Academy of Management Journal, “rather leaders should treat failures as invaluable learning opportunities, encouraging the open sharing of information about them.”

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