Study shows failure better teacher than success

August 23, 2010

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.

Desai's research, published in the Academy of Management Journal, focused on companies and organizations that launch satellites, rockets and shuttles into space - an arena where failures are high profile and hard to conceal.

Working with Peter Madsen, assistant professor at BYU School of Management, Desai found that organizations not only learned more from failure than , they retained that knowledge longer.

"We found that the knowledge gained from success was often fleeting while knowledge from failure stuck around for years," he said. "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."

Desai compared the flights of the space shuttle Atlantis and the Challenger. During the 2002 Atlantis flight, a piece of insulation broke off and damaged the left solid rocket booster but did not impede the mission or the program. There was little follow-up or investigation.

The Challenger was launched next and another piece of insulation broke off. This time the shuttle and its seven-person crew were destroyed.

The disaster prompted the suspension of shuttle flights and led to a major investigation resulting in 29 recommended changes to prevent future calamities.

The difference in response in the two cases, Desai said, came down to this: The Atlantis was considered a success and the Challenger a failure.

"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 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 , "rather leaders should treat failures as invaluable learning opportunities, encouraging the open sharing of information about them."

Explore further: A Statement From the Columbia Families on NASA's Return To Flight

Related Stories

Analysts: PC manufacturers can do better

July 3, 2006

The annual rate of PC hardware failure is down, but manufacturers can do better, technology analysis firm Gartner found in a study released over the weekend.

Shuttle crew includes Challenger alternate

August 1, 2007

A woman scheduled to be the first schoolteacher launched into space by the United States was nearly a passenger on the ill-fated Challenger flight in 1986.

A company's good reputation can be a bad thing

December 4, 2007

Consumers expect a lot from high-equity brands such as Disney or Apple. When such brands fail us – perhaps by providing a product that doesn’t work or service that is sub-par – we may be especially disappointed. Our ...

Recommended for you

From a very old skeleton, new insights on ancient migrations

October 9, 2015

Three years ago, a group of researchers found a cave in Ethiopia with a secret: it held the 4,500-year-old remains of a man, with his head resting on a rock pillow, his hands folded under his face, and stone flake tools surrounding ...

Mexican site yields new details of sacrifice of Spaniards

October 9, 2015

It was one of the worst defeats in one of history's most dramatic conquests: Only a year after Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico, hundreds of people in a Spanish-led convey were captured, sacrificed and apparently eaten.

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

Who you gonna trust? How power affects our faith in others

October 6, 2015

One of the ongoing themes of the current presidential campaign is that Americans are becoming increasingly distrustful of those who walk the corridors of power – Exhibit A being the Republican presidential primary, in which ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Aug 26, 2010
What can we learn from this article? Checking your references before publishing is invaluable: Challenger blew up spectacularly in '86, whilst it was the foam that did in Columbia.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.