Why it’s hard to learn from success

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in Leaders & Managers

In 2003, Bologna-based Ducati entered the Grand Prix motorcycle racing circuit for the first time.

Because Ducati was new, it didn’t expect much in the way of winning. The goal was to learn how to develop a better bike for future seasons. For that reason, the team put sensors on the bike that would capture data on 28 performance parameters. It also debriefed riders after the race to gather input on subjective parameters, like handling.

Then the unexpected happened.

The rookie team won. A lot. It finished among the top three in nine races and second overall for the season. Its bike was the fastest in the field. With each race, the team’s focus shifted from learning to winning.

You can imagine, then, how easy it was to push aside all that gathered data.

One team member said, “You look at the data when you want to understand what’s going wrong. You do not look at the data because you want to understand why you’re performing well.”

We learn from failure. But how do we learn from success? The key is to avoid these three impediments:

1. Fundamental attribution errors. We conclude that we succeeded because of our talents or strategy. And we may dismiss that environmental factors or random events played a role.

2. Overconfidence bias. Faith in our­selves is a good thing, of course, but too much can make us believe we don’t need to change anything.

3. Failure-to-ask-why syndrome. Executives and their teams may not ask the tough questions that would help them expand their knowledge or change their assumptions.

— Adapted from “Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success,” Francesca Gino and Gary P. Pisano, Harvard Business Review.

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