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Why MBAs, and B-Schools, Need to Embrace Failure

Robert C. Goizueta, chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, left, toasts cans of New Coke with Coca-Cola President Donald R. Keough, in 1985

Photograph by AP Photo

Robert C. Goizueta, chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, left, toasts cans of New Coke with Coca-Cola President Donald R. Keough, in 1985

A guest post from Matt Symonds, chief editor of, a website dedicated to the world’s outstanding business schools. He is also founder and former director of the QS World MBA Tour and co-author of ABC of Getting the MBA Admissions Edge.

A recent article in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper introduced me to what may be one of the most fascinating museums on the planet. Located in Ann Arbor, Mich., the facility run by GfK Custom Research goes under the informal name of  the “Museum of Failed Products” and is a massive storehouse devoted to just that—products that some developer thought were going to change the world but ended up in the trash can.

If the museum has a central message, it’s that failure isn’t a rarity; it’s the norm. For every insanely successful product such as the iPhone or the Big Mac, there’s a whole host of ideas that only a mother could truly love, such as (I kid you not) Colgate’s (CL) TV dinners and Pepsi’s (PEP) breakfast cola.

Given the ubiquity of failure, shouldn’t business schools be teaching their students to follow Samuel Becket’s injunction to “fail, fail again, fail better,” rather than filling their charges’ heads with unrealistic notions of winning every time?

Kitty Koelemeijer, a professor of marketing at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands, argues that allowing yourself to fail is integral to the learning process. “Prospect theory says that losing hurts twice as much as winning feels good, so people are naturally afraid to lose or fail. But if you avoid losing, you lose the opportunity to learn from it.”

This idea used to be a central theme in the MBA admissions process, with an essay that asked applicants to describe a personal failure and emphasize what they learned from the experience. A version of that question still appears on the MBA applications at MIT’s Sloan School and Cornell’s Johnson School. Once on campus, classmates would all benefit from perspectives learned the hard way.

But that’s starting to change. While Harvard Business School asks candidates to describe something they wish they had done better, Wharton now focuses on how candidates have put knowledge into action, Stanford asks applicants how they exceeded expectations or improved an organization, and Columbia Business School uses a 3-minute promotional video to elicit responses on the importance of the school’s community. So has learning from failure taken a back seat?

I hope not. As Koelemeijer points out, if we only do the things that we like and think we will be successful at, we narrow our perspectives and lose the flexibility to grab other opportunities. And the business world has no shortage of such examples. Much of the revival of Apple’s (AAPL) fortunes were tied to Steve Jobs’s years in exile, while Microsoft (MSFT) paid the price for ignoring search engines and Google (GOOG) missed out on social networking.

So what about learning from failure in the classroom? At the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, MBA students often study cases in which protagonists fail miserably. “Not only is it valuable for students to see and analyze failure, it makes it much easier to explore options for success,” explains Martin Davidson, an associate professor of leadership and organizational behavior. ”This is true in life as it is in the classroom. Failing—and being willing to try to understand and learn from your failure—is the recipe for resilience.”

Why should MBA students settle for the old adage that history teaches us nothing? From father to son, or from one battle-hardened entrepreneur to another, we all stand to gain when we fail well.

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