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Celebrate Learning, Not Success or Failure

26/04/2012

Some people say “You only learn from failure” or “Celebrate failure”.

Other people say “Failure is overrated” or “Focus on successes, not failures”.

All of them are wrong.

What we learn from are information-rich events, as Donald Reinertsen describes in his fantastic book Principles of Product Development Flow.

“Either excessive or insufficient probability of failure reduces the efficiency with which we generate information. […] Avoid oversimplifications, like 'eliminate failures' or 'celebrate failures.' There is an optimum failure rate.”

People learn most when they cannot predict the outcome of their behaviors. When the chance of failure or success is about 50%, Reinertsen says. (And there’s no way around it. This insight is based on solid information theory.)

Failure and success are orthogonal to learning. What you learn from are the experiments and tests that you run. When you make mistakes, or simply follow good practices, you will probably learn very little. No matter whether the result is a failure or a success.

It makes no sense to celebrate a success you have achieved despite having made stupid mistakes. It also makes no sense to celebrate failure you ended up in despite having followed good practices. In either case celebrations would just reinforce the wrong things.

You should focus neither on failures nor on successes. What you should focus on are experiments that maximize learning.

Celebrate learning, not success or failure.

This article is written by on in Knowledge & Experience. Jurgen Appelo is at Happy Melly. Connect with Jurgen Appelo on .

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  • http://management.curiouscatblog.net/ John Hunter

    “What you learn from are the experiments and tests that you run.” that is exactly right. The whole notion that “you learn more from failure…” I find annoying and misleading. My post “Learn from Success and Failure” 2007:
    http://management.curiouscatblog.net/2007/05/05/learn-from-success-and-failure/
    And from my recent post, discusses the central role of experiments in learning and improvement
    http://management.curiouscatblog.net/2012/03/06/keys-to-the-effective-use-of-the-pdsa-improvement-cycle/

  • http://itscertainlyuncertain.blogspot.de/ Fabian

    An interesting observation, but eventually not the whole story. I think it does matter, whether the outcome of an experiment is a success or a failure. I will argue why:
    There is more to learning than just the amount of information learned (which may indeed be primarily influenced by the non-predictability of a learning situation).
    Another aspect is the sustainability of the learned information. And with respect to this here are two arguments, why information learned by failure might indeed be more sustainable:
    1.) Think about your own experience: What are the things, you remember for a very long time? Why do you think certain things do work or do not work? What stays unforgettable in your memory of your holidays? Things, that worked out perfectly, or things that went painfully wrong?
    2.) I think the unconscious mechanisms in humans is much more about avoiding failure, but reaching success. And you should not underestimate the influence of unconscious to your daily decission making! To quote Daniel Kahneman (awarded with the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 and author of “Thinking fast and slow”): “The aversion to the failure of not reaching the goal is much stronger than the desire to exceed it.”
    Nevertheless, the core message of this article remains true: “Celebrate learning!”