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Opportunity, motivation and ability to learn from failures and errors: Review, synthesis, and the way forward

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)252-277
JournalAcademy of management annals
Issue number1
Early online date20 Oct 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2018


King's Authors


Although organizations and individuals tend to focus on learning from success, research has shown that failure can yield crucial insights in various contexts that range from small mistakes and errors, product recalls, accidents, and medical errors to large-scale disasters. This review of the literature identifies three mechanisms—opportunity, motivation, and ability—through which individuals, groups, and organizations learn from failure, and it bridges the gaps between different levels of analysis. Opportunity to learn from failure mostly takes the shape of more information about errors and failures that are generated by one’s own and others’ prior failures or near-failures. Motivation to learn from failure is hindered by punitive leaders and organizations. Finally, the ability to learn from failure partly relies on inherent attitudes and characteristics, but can be further developed through thoughtful analysis and transfers of successful routines. Our review leads us to distinguish between erroneous versus correct processes and adverse versus successful outcomes to better understand the full gamut of events that are faced by organizations. We identify the existence of noisy learning environment, where spurious successes (when erroneous processes still lead to successful outcomes) and spurious failures (when correct processes are combined with adverse outcomes) lower the opportunity to learn. Considering noisy learning situations is helpful when understanding the differences between slow- and fast-learning environments. We conclude our review by identifying a number of unexplored areas we hope scholars will address to better our understanding of failure learning.

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