Can We Learn from Our Successes? Researchers say yes!

by Evan Shellshear

innovationexcellence.orgWhen it comes to innovation it would seem that we have a lot to learn from each failure. However, apart from boosting one’s confidence, how often have you tried to learn from your successes? There is now some science that demonstrates that learning from your success just might improve the way you learn. A recent review in the journal Psychology, which reviewed results from behavioral economics, social psychology and neuroscience, points out how important success can be to your learning. We’ll look at some of its most important conclusions here and find out what we can learn from it.

It may seem counter-intuitive that successes are the right place to look for lessons on innovation. In fact, as many companies become larger they seem to become more rigid and antithetical to new innovative ideas. This seems to be so much the case that even the famed Clayton Christensen, originator of the disruptive innovation theory, claimed that new and disruptive innovations should always be separated from the main part of a company to be allowed to thrive on their own. That is, without the strangling effect of the rest of the organization. This thought has even led to the term “innovation antibodies”, which point to the innovation destroying tendencies of mature companies.

This tendency becomes clear, however, when we understand the underlying physiological processes guiding it. For example, learning is heavily influenced by unanticipated success or failure. The former encourages one to repeat an action, whereas the latter leads one to find an alternative strategy. Hence we can see that by being successful, this will reinforce one to take the path down incremental innovation lane, where we hone those successful outcomes we have developed so far. Failure on the other hand sends us searching for new solutions and ideas, which can often lead to new disruptive ideas.

Despite the potential for failures to help us find totally new ideas, there is still much to be gained from learning from our successes. In fact, recent research has shown that neurons actually become more “finely tuned” after a success than after a failure, which can lead to better results in the future due to the improved learning caused by a success. Hence, this would seem to suggest, that by being successful, we can learn better! So one not only has the opportunities to learn from the success but also one can learn these lesson better than if they had been a failure.

Most of the affects on learning seem to be unconscious, however, so it may be hard to achieve the same effects by merely tricking yourself that what just happened was a success and not a failure. For example, it has been demonstrated in higher primates that reward is used to guide cognitive processes, such as the allocation of attentional resources, which can aid learning. So the allocation of these additional resources to be thrown at successful outcomes is something that happens unconsciously.

In addition, when it simply comes to the ability to learn from a success it is well known that certain cognitive checks and balances are driven by our expected reward value. This means people adjust their behavior depending on what they believe the outcome will be. So if they have been successful with something in the past and expect it again then this will assist them in carrying out the correct behavior. Whereas if someone has failed, then the same controls may not be there leaving someone simply not to care about regulating their own behavior to achieve a desired outcome.

So it seems on multiple levels, we should not only be able to learn from our successes but we should be able to do it better than learning from our failures!

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Evan Shellshear is a technology and software expert working as the Point Cloud Manager at the Fraunhofer-Chalmers Centre in Sweden. His work focuses on turning cutting-edge research into successful industrial solutions across numerous industries. Connect with him @eshellshear