Intent Blog

You Want to Successful? Learn from your Successes.


People often say that to get ahead you need to learn from your mistakes. I agree but I think this is limiting. You need to look to and learn from your successes as much as your mistakes. If you are a person that can gather information from successes and then put that to use, you have formula for success.

In our personal lives, we have serious anxiety about failing. But we do not only have this concern in our personal lives, but in business as well. We create rules and regulations to prevent failures. We have a wide range of fix-it or problem-solving tools to use. We are extremely geared to learn from failures.

Yet, despite this toolbox for solving problems, we don’t always convert failures into successes. Amy Edmondson (Harvard Business School: “Learn from Failure.” April 2011) believe it is because we think about failure the wrong way.

Failure is not always bad.

One mistake in thinking about failure is that it is always bad, which it is not. Failure is one of the best ways to learn. Another related mistake, however, is that people think that learning from failures is obvious or even straightforward, which it is not. In analyzing failures there are frequently uncertainties, or even surprises, that require new thinking.

Unfortunately, people tend to refuse the new thinking challenge. Rather than doing a thorough unpacking of what is needed, the temptation is to over analyze and get caught by analysis paralysis, or blame shift. This is where decisions go wrong, because of premature closure rather than disciplined thinking.

An interesting case study is Ducati, the Italian superbike. In 2003, it had an incredible run in the MotoGP with the DucatiGP3. The improvements to the GP3 to win in 2004 on the new DucatiGP4 were extensive. To their dismay, the performance was a failure. It was “back to the drawing board.” The first challenge was: which of the improvements was the problem? The second challenge: how much technological improvement would give the extra performance improvement for 2005.

Learning from successes.

“Unpacking what is needed” to get to the outcome, is the hint for an alternative approach to learning. That is, learning from successes. Learning from success should be obvious, right? But, no it is not. Once successful, there is a tendency to oversimplify the causes for it. “For better, do more of the same,” I have been told many times. Then I cannot help but recall Ducati’s GP4’s substandard performance after an excellent season. Failure so frequently follows on success.

I am a firm believer in the saying: you succeed by design as you fail by design. Failure does not just happen: things go wrong and it leads to failure. Exactly like success: do the right things, and the process should take you to the intended outcome.

Understanding the process that makes a success is a starting point. Here are some other benefits in analyzing success:

  • Because design creates success, from a design point of view then, success data is legitimate data. In the domain of leadership, this “design” could easily be interpreted as “mindset” or attitude.
  • The analysis of the success process indicates the minimum required for success. Success and the plans for it are not linear, or line-of-sight, to the outcome. There are uncertainties, surprises, and obstacles which are not specifically noticed during the successful run. It is most probably these unexpected issues that lead to the design of failure. Dealing with these issues effectively to ensure success are valuable learning points.
  • Metrics is about how to track progress and ensure what must happen. Metrics are road signs. They also become an early warning signal for change and adaptation. They are part of the successful design if handled as a call to accountability.
  • Analyzing successes is the cheapest, most cost-effective way of preventing future failures. Two questions will help: what works now? What would have to work in the future; is the now completely adequate?
  • Really understanding your successes is the fastest way to solve a problem. How your success is designed, becomes the template for the solution. Much time is saved if one does not have to go through a lengthy problem-solving process. A faster alternative is to use a success template for comparison.
  • The lack of curiosity about success comes with a price. The price is lengthy debates about the reasons for failing, rather than tapping into a success library. The success library is not the “good, smiling employee of the month.” It consists of a description of processes, and/or behaviors, that led to success. This database becomes a thought-resource to generate options and possibilities in dealing with failure. I am amazed when a management team does not have time to debrief a success but could spend hours, and ruin lives, in the name of solving a problem.

Unpacking and collecting data about success is a worthwhile endeavors that save many hours of analyzing and guessing how to avoid failure.

Armand Kruger

Armand Kruger qualified as a clinical psychologist at the University of Pretoria in 1972. Since 1973 he has been working with one burning question: How do successful people do it differently? What alternatives are they doing in their minds not done by the average or the underachiever? To answer that question he went outside of mainstream psychology to find cognitive process models that will capture the essence of success.