Stop Learning From Your Failures, It Creates a Culture of Fear

It's become a classic business mantra: you learn more from your failures than from your successes. But what if that idea is all wrong? Alex Bogusky, co-chairman of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, believes it is—and recent MIT research showing that we learn more from success backs him up. "You create a fearful culture where you spend a lot of time looking at where you screwed up," he says. Instead, his company has bred a culture in which success is celebrated, and failure is forgotten.

Bogusky was one of the speakers at Fast Company's Innovation Uncensored conference held on April 21, 2010, in New York City. In case you didn't score a ticket to the sold-out event, we've got video highlights.

Discuss the event and submit questions to the speakers at the Innovation Uncensored Facebook page.

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23 Comments

  • Chris Reich

    What nonsense.

    Most people don't learn from failure because they don't take the time to analyze all the steps and processes leading to failure. Few businesses will even allow light to shine on actual root causes of failure.

    Failure, in and of itself, is not educational. It must be made into an educational experience. The MIT study is really saying that.

    Look at the medical M&M process. Look at the Challenger investigation. (More was learned about NASA's culture than was learned about O-rings. 911?

    We need fewer of these free form, sit-on-a-couch-and-pontificate sessions and more real thinking. I sat through one of these last week and it was the same thing---people on a panel saying the first thing that popped into their heads. There was a call for "thinking outside of the box".

    If looking closely at failure creates a "culture of blame", you're not doing it right. And therein lies the real problem: lack of skilled management.

    Emerging economies are moving far faster than we are.

    Innovation and creative thinking is good. But I believe thinking has moved too far outside of the box to be of value. Time to put thinking back in the box. We used to call that common sense. It's common knowledge today that common sense is gone.

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

  • Randy Dichoso

    I know of leaders who would rather focus on their successes rather than their failures. No doubt deep inside they analyze their mistakes, learn from them and adjust their behaviours/actions. But publicly they steer people's attention to the positive side of things.

    This is okay. But there is great value in learning from mistakes, talking about them with concerned members and identifying clear action items on how to improve from there. It is a must for any person or group. Otherwise, there will be no progress.

  • Christine Maingard

    I too agree with most comments here. Where would we be if we wouldn't learn from failure? And is it not that when people or organisations find themselves in the biggest mess, it is because little or nothing has been learned from past mistakes.

    Before making such lofty and, in my opinion, totally unsubstantiated claims Alex Bogusky should familiarise himself a little with the cognitive aspects of learning and maybe even with the evolutionary aspects of it all.

    Come to think of it, even monkeys learn from mistakes. Indeed, Bogusky's idea seems a "promotional hyperbole".

    Dr Christine Maingard
    Author of "Think Less, Be More"
    http://www.thinklessbemore.com

  • Luke Iorio

    While I appreciate the focus on success and learning from success -- i.e. what's gone right -- I believe this stays at the surface of what's actually going on.

    The examples he gives -- perhaps jokingly, but nonetheless -- about not looking at proposals they've lost and eliminating reference to old clients they've lost is fear based as well. Focusing only on the "wins" means that your external situation is dictating your internal reality. That's not a long term formula for success unless the internal reality is developed, and can see only success in front of it (at all times, even at the most difficult times).

    So, what's the perception (and where it came from) that connects "failure" to fear? Break that connection and you'll see success in front of you at all times -- it's referred to as an Anabolic perspective (as opposed to a Catabolic perspective which is fear and limitation based) -- discuss in the book Energy Leadership by Bruce D Schneider.

    Luke Iorio
    President & CEO
    Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC)
    http://www.ipeccoaching.com

  • Frank Fid-Odiatu

    Interesting concept. Forces one to analyze success more as opposed to dwelling on the reasons for failure. Is this radical concept going to hold up to scrutiny?

  • Caspar McTaggart

    To Tim's analogy, I would say that failure is not always attributable to error. BP can, and must, fully understand its mistakes in order to avoid making them again. bogusky, however, deals in a more subjective world. he may in fact have the best idea every time and still occasionally run up against a client who fails to choose it. bogusky is smart to put his mind to work on the next pitch and leave his failures in the dust.

  • Jack Elson

    WAIT A MINUTE! The MIT study uses monkeys for subjects. The last time I checked, I'm pretty sure that I learn and think differently than monkeys do (although I'm sure some of my friends would disagree.) The main difference in learning that we humans do is to understand why we failed. (Monkeys don't have the thinking ability to reflect in this way.) And what is more, the researchers themselves say this, "Maybe the lesson is to know that the brain will learn from success, and you don’t need to dwell on that. You need to pay more attention to failures and challenge why you fail"(quoted from the article in HBR). The bottom line is that we learn from both successes and failures. And besides the cognitive element of learning there is also the emotional (motivational) element. Sometimes fear (and other negative emotions) can be a motivator or demotivator, depending on the situation. And success in a business is the goal to achieve, and when it is achieved, celebrating it provides positive emtional reinforcement. So the question of learning from success and/or failure is a complex issue. Bogusky's idea is, in my opinion, promotional hyperbole which is like perfume: to be inhaled and contemplated, but not to be swallowed.
    --
    Jack Elson, PhD
    TUI University

  • Rose Keiser

    Sorry for the dual post...bad connection.

    But I forgot to mention the researcher stated: "Miller cautions against making too tidy a connection between his findings and an environment like the workplace, but he offers this suggestion: '...You need to pay more attention to failures and challenge why you fail.' "

    That seems to contradict the "culture of fear" issue.

  • Rose Keiser

    Don't we already celebrate success? What about bonuses? What about raises? What about those company annual meetings where the best performers get those fancy awards in front of everyone? I think there is no doubt we celebrate success in the form of raising the successful to higher positions, giving them more money, and pointing them out at every opportunity. Failure is a learning experience that should not be ignored or removed from its importance in our life.

    I can't teach my child about the pain of life without his own personal experiences adding important information to his life knowledge. Ignoring failures is dangerous-you cannot keep a bubble around a child by only pointing out their successes. Failures provide vital opportunities to guide us towards success.

    Besides the research is about "trial outcomes", which means learning by trial and error-right? That would be learning through failure and the ultimate neural response to the success of the 'getting it right' result.

  • Rose Keiser

    Don't we already celebrate success? What about bonuses? What about raises? What about those company annual meetings where the best performers get those fancy awards in front of everyone? I think there is no doubt we celebrate success in the form of raising the successful to higher positions, giving them more money, and pointing them out at every opportunity. Failure is a learning experience that should not be ignored or removed from its importance in our life.

    I can't teach my child about the pain of life without his own personal experiences adding important information to his life knowledge. Ignoring failures is dangerous-you cannot keep a bubble around a child by only pointing out their successes. Failures provide vital opportunities to guide us towards success.

  • NoahRobischon

    @Bruce and others - I agree that in the end it should be a balance, and that the most important thing for a leader is to simply spend time learning. But Bogusky's emphasis on success rather than failure makes a lot of sense to me. And I'm not alone: Here's Dan & Chip Heath talking about why solving problems is often less effective than copying success.
    http://www.fastcompany.com/mag...

  • Cynthia Holladay

    I agree with most of the comments here: Why can't we learn from both success and failure? An engineer or scientist would never say, "Stop learning from failure". Think, Thomas Edison!

    If we intentionally and continuously ignore what we fear, fear wins. (And it will likely bite us in the ass.)

    It seems that most successful people don't actually know the truth about what is attributable to their success either. We would all be wiser if we learn to observe data objectively and not take it so personally. My $.02

  • Fiko Turegen

    I just read MIT research article, but I fail to see how MIT research backs up Bogusky's claim. Could you please explain how a prolonged neuron firing after a success (very precisely defined as correctly shifting eye looking at a picture) in chimp's brain could be translated into a success in an ad campaign. I wonder if you have read the MIT article?

  • Bruce Johnson

    Just posted a blog post on why Alex is wrong and that leaders need to learn more from failure, not less (http://acceleratedgrowth.org/a....

    But the short version is that most leaders don't learn from failure at all. They're running at full tilt and rarely ever take the time to evaluate and learn from the past (negative or positive). Moreover, if a leader is a blamer or creates a culture of fear, then that's a leader/manager problem, not a problem with the idea of learning from failure.

    This is not an either/or issue, but a both/and. Alex is wrong on this one. And I have a hard time believing Crispin Porter + Bogusky actually works the way he says it does (like they've never fired someone for underperforming or they only evaluate people based on their successes).

    --
    Bruce D. Johnson, President
    Accelerated Growth Consulting

    http://www.acceleratedgrowth.o...

  • Sylvia Lafair

    Alex's comments are way too simplistic for me. How about learning from everything! Life is a great big feedback loop.Learning is a continuum of good, bad, ugly, and beautiful.
    In my work with patterns that repeat and repeat and repeat and....(think the movie "Groundhog Day") and my research for the book "Don't Bring It to Work" I am always amazed with what causes individuals to learn, grow, and be more and more successful. It does not come from denying any parts of ourselves or our experiences.
    The past is still alive in us and if we see failures in a negative light we lose, if we see them as feedback, we win.
    George Santayana said it well, "Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it".
    Sylvia Lafair

  • Soren Nielsen

    I agree with Bhupesh and Tim below here, it's not about success or failure, it is about learning from the past and applying it to the future.

    Almost every business I have been involved with have a cyclical nature to their business, this means that there actually is an end to the daily madness, which provide the opportunity to stop and review the cycle.

    This could enable a cross departmental forum where celebration of season successes melds with proactive critique, competitive analysis and exploration, to deepen the brand understanding across the organisation and to improve the cycle for the coming engagement. And it would help counteract the tendency of division among business units.

    However in most the businesses I have experience with, this does not happen, as there is a distinct and collective dislike to review past mistakes irrespective of where these may lie in the value chain. Rather employees stay behind departmental lines and grumble about the idiots in department x y and z.

    Soren Nielsen
    Designer

  • Mark Von Der Linn

    I haven't read the research, but learning MORE one way doesn't mean we learn nothing the other way, just more. I suppose it depends on how much more, but clearly there is plenty to learn from mistakes. Perhaps Bogusky's business is such that the trade off of culture building for learning is of minimal consequence. Clearly there are other businesses or industries that can't afford to do that, such as management consulting, but more power to him.

    Mark
    www.VDLconsulting.com

  • Jeremy Janszen

    There's an approach to process improvement and quality called "Appreciative Inquiry" which, boiled down, basically drives us to ask "What works well?"

    This approach takes the positive route and helps identify what can be replicated or duplicated elsewhere to make improvement. However, I do agree with Tim in that, both naturally and intentionally, we learn from mistakes in order to make progress.

  • River Panda

    I know one big organisation that use employees' failures (somehow too much) during performance appraisal. The tagline there is "going up or out". It managed to kick out a lot of employees by applying this. On the other hand, this organisation is very succesfull.

  • Bhupesh Shah

    @Noah - There is a danger in making wholesale changes based on one piece of research. While Earl Miller's research suggests that we absorb more from success than failure, other studies done by researchers like Wolfram Shultz or Carol Dweck suggest that we learn better from making mistakes and analyzing why we made those mistakes. This is crucial in education and in my opinion, in business as well.

    Instead of celebrating success and forgetting failure, how about analyzing past actions - regardless of outcome? Determine HOW it impacted the outcome and WHY it had that affect. This would foster an inquisitive, self-reflective culture that will benefit the company and the employees.

    Bhupesh Shah, MBA
    ethnicomm inc.
    marketing | sales | web strategy