Learning from My Success and From Others’ Failure: Evidence from Minimally Invasive Cardiac Surgery

by KC Diwas, Bradley R. Staats & Francesca Gino

Overview — The importance of failure in the learning process is well recognized. In organizations as work grows increasingly fragmented—more specialized and divided into smaller tasks—the role of individuals in organizational learning becomes more important. This paper examines how individuals learn directly from their own past experience, and indirectly from the past experience of others. Focusing on one particular performance outcome, the quality of surgeries, findings indicate that individuals learn the most from their own successes and the failures of others, possibly because in both cases they attribute the outcomes to internal rather than external factors. This research has implications for healthcare and organizations more generally. Research by KC Diwas, Bradley R. Staats, and Francesca Gino. Key concepts include:

  • Individuals learn more from their own success than from their own failure or from the success of others.
  • The failure of others has a greater learning effect on individual performance than does others' successful experience.
  • Certain types of experience help to make individuals more open to learning from their own failures.
  • Individuals may be more open to reflect on their own failures and learn from them when they have greater experience with success.
  • Seeing failures in others makes failure not only more acceptable, but it also makes one's own failure less threatening to one's own identity. In addition, the failure of others provides valuable knowledge that can be used for ongoing problem solving.
  • Organizations may need to find other ways to make their members feel capable and interpret failures in ways that do not threaten their self-image.

Author Abstract

Learning from past experience is central to an organization's adaptation and survival. A key dimension of prior experience is whether the outcome was successful or unsuccessful. While empirical studies have investigated the effects of success and failure in organizational learning, to date the phenomenon has received little attention at the individual level. Drawing on attribution theory in psychology, we investigate how individuals learn from both failure and success from their own past experience as well as the experience of others. For our empirical analyses we use ten years of data from 71 cardiothoracic surgeons who completed over 6,500 procedures using a new technology for cardiac surgery. We find that individuals learn more from their own successes than from their own failures, while they learn more from the failures of others than they do from others' successes. We also find that individuals' prior successes and others' failures can help individuals to overcome their inability to learn from their own failures. Together, these findings offer both theoretical and practical insights into how individuals learn directly from their prior experience and indirectly from the experience of others.

Paper Information