Learning from Success

Image by Kevinthoule(c)

Several weeks ago, I did two blog posts on failure (see related posts below). I focused on the benefits of reframing failure as a learning opportunity instead of a calamity or disaster. Yet it is interesting that our successes can also be a big hindrance to our learning and development. This is because we are more likely to learn from our failures than our successes.

Failure forces us to pause and take stock of the situation which enables or encourages learning whereas success causes us to blindly accept our achievements without analysis. We are keen to find out why we failed but not usually keen to find out why we succeeded. It is a human tendency to attribute our success to our smartness or amazing brilliance (something within our control) and discount the impact or influence of external factors (e.g. luck, timing) that brought the good fortune.

Francesca Gino and Gary Pisano in their April Harvard Business Review article on “Why leaders don’t learn from success” stated that there are three reasons for this.

(1) Fundamental attribution errors: When we succeed, we tend to give too much credit to our talents and our model or strategy and too little to external factors and luck.

(2) Overconfidence bias: Success can make us so overconfident that we believe we don’t need to change anything. Failure usually forces an analysis of what went wrong while success encourages clinging to the same strategy. Sticking stubbornly to a strategy that works in the short term without bothering to understand why it works can be a dangerous thing in the long term.

(3) Failure-to-ask-why syndrome: We have the tendency not to investigate the causes of good performance. Success can make us believe that we are better decision makers than we actually are. This is because success doesn’t tend to provoke the same soul-searching ‘why’ questions that failure demands. Hence success tends to make us less self-reflective which hinders learning at both individual and organisational levels.

Jim Collins also states this point in his latest book, How the Mighty fall, in which he identified ‘Hubris born of success’ as the first stage for all great companies that later implode. The hubris is a result of these companies not trying to understand the reasons for their success but taking it for granted. This leads to overconfidence and arrogance in decision making.

There is nothing wrong with toasting your success according to Gino and Pisano but if you stop with the clinking of the champagne glasses then you have missed a huge opportunity. It is ironic that by casting a critical eye on your success, you are better prepared to avoid failure.

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3 Responses to Learning from Success

  1. Ogechi

    Hmm…This is a very introspective piece. I am asking myself if I get distracted by my successes. I celebrate them, but I think I’m more focused on how to maintain success, I definitely review the situation and hope I can succeed again next time. I guess this means I’m in a good place, right? This is one area where I’m careful not to get carried away Like night turns into day, I’m very aware that success can quickly turn into… Anyway, thanks Prof. Well done.

  2. You keep your head when you acknowledge the source of all true success. life’s simpler that way – the way it’s designed to be. Great post.

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