Day 2 – Failures are educational

Identifying successful innovations is a comparatively easy exercise, as you have already seen. A somewhat greater challenge is to remember your own failures or the flops of others. One’s own failures are often banned from our active memory by repression mechanisms. However, this is not very helpful. It’s a truism that you learn from mistakes. What may be new to you is that, scientifically proven, one sometimes learns more from the mistakes of others than from one’s own mistakes.

But that is easier said than done. The flops of others often do not become visible because nobody likes to talk about failures. The mistakes, the flops, the failed projects, etc. are swept under the carpet.


Still, try to identify flops.

  1. So try to find a few innovations that you would classify as unsuccessful. Again, focus on your daily or business environment.
  2. Why were these innovations not successful? In retrospect, try to analyse the factors that were responsible for the failure.
  3. What can you learn for yourself or for your company from the failure?

Innovation and failure

The literature also shows, however, that it is indeed the case that one usually learns more from the mistakes of others than from one’s own. This does not sound plausible at first, but there are empirical studies that convincingly prove exactly that. Moreover, attribution theory in psychology says exactly that (Bledow et al. 2017; KC et al. 2013):

Attribution theory first explains to what cause we attribute failure and success. This attribution is important if we are to learn from success or failure. Here is a brief, perhaps simplified, presentation of the theory:

One's own failure

People tend to attribute their own failures to external factors. In the context of failed innovation projects, this could be a reference to the fact that – without the company’s doing – economic conditions have worsened, that certain external changes were not foreseeable, and so on – you certainly know a whole series of these kinds of attributions. But if one’s own failure is explained by external factors, then the possibilities for learning from it are very limited – not to say non-existent.

One's own success

If, as the attribution theory claims, one’s own success is explained by one’s own ability and by one’s own excellent skills, even then one can’t really learn much from it. The ability and the skills are already excellent anyway.

The success of others

When others succeed, people tend to attribute that success to external factors: Favourable conditions, luck, and so on. You know this, too. You can guess for yourself what learning potential is hidden in this attribution.

The failure of others

The interesting thing about attribution theory is that people – if they behave as the theory suggests – explain the failure of others with their (lack of) skills and abilities. Here lies enormous learning potential, especially in this situation we can try to shed light on the background of the failure. To do this, it is necessary to dive much deeper into the reasons for failure than would be necessary when learning from successes. In the latter, we tend to be tempted to develop a recipe from success and then implement it at the next opportunity. When we learn from failure, it is not a matter of recognizing recipes, but of getting to the root of the failure in order to avoid similar, analogous or comparable things in the future.

Learning from mistakes

Innovation & Failure. The Basis for Building the Future (in Englisch) – Bernd Ebersberger, MIT Conference 2017