Let's face it: we often are pretty bad at learning from our own failures. We make excuses, blame uncontrollabe external causes, and argue that we simply have to "move on" and not dwell on the past. What about learning from others' failures? Can we improve by examining others' mistakes carefully and systematically? Bledow, Carette, Kuhnel, and Bister conducted an experimental study several years ago on this subject. They published an article in the Academy of Management Learning and Education titled "Learning from others' failures: The effectiveness of failure stories for managerial learning." In a training setting, they gave research subjects stories about others' failures or successes. The stories all provided the same learning content, whether failure or success. They examined whether failures stimulated more learning than successes. Here is an excerpt from the paper, in which they explain their results:
In support of the reasoning that failure stories stimulate deep information processing and result in enhanced learning transfer, we found that listening to others’ managerial failures led to more elaboration as compared to listening to other people’s managerial successes. Intensified elaboration, in turn, yielded higher transfer of newly acquired knowledge to a subsequent task. This effect was more pronounced for people who see failure as a valuable source of learning...
Because failure and success stories conveyed the same learning content and differed only in the way it was presented, framing of the learning content as a failure triggered the motivation to process the stories more thoroughly. Learners responded to the negative valence of failure stories with increased elaboration, which then resulted in enhanced learning. This study thus supports the assumption that a motivational mechanism is at play and yields the learning benefits associated with being exposed to others’ failures.
I should stress that I don't think we should conclude that learning only comes from failure. In fact, other studies demonstrate that powerful learning comes from being able to COMPARE successes with failures. In so doing, we get better at determining the true causes of particular good or bad results. Tel Aviv University scholars Schmuel Ellis and Inbar Davidi examined after-action reviews conducted by Israeli military units. They compared units that conducted post-event reflection exercises after successful and unsuccessful navigation exercises with those who only examined failures. They discovered that groups who evaluated both successes and failures developed a richer understanding of the drivers of good and bad outcomes. People who studied both successes and failures performed better over time than those who only studied failures.