Do MBA Students Need to Redefine Failure

A few months ago, I returned a written assignment to an MBA team of students. The assignment limited them to 10 pages of written content. Using Microsoft Word’s Track Changes Function, I think I made 130 or so comments on their 10-page assignment. I did not hear anyone say, “Wow, you certainly helped us learn.” What I did hear was concern about how this will affect their course grade. The team’s definition of failure was in terms of a grade and not in terms of learning.

I was reminded of my MBA student team’s reaction to my feedback while reading, “Redefining Failure” a September 2010 Harvard Business Review column written by Seth Godin. He makes several points that are worth emphasizing.

  • Most of us think we know the look of failure
  • Most of us think failure is the opposite of success; and we optimize our organizations to avoid our perceptions of it
  • In our effort to avoid failure, we narrowly define it to insure that most outcomes become non-failures
  • A failure often creates a panic or sense of urgency; redefining failure so more outcomes are included may energize the organization and employees to act more urgently and purposefully

I think most MBA students think they know what failure looks like in their MBA program. Perhaps they do; however, their undergraduate grading experience and their class standing are greatly influencing their view. After reading Mr. Godin’s column, MBA students and perhaps even faculty need to redefine failure some way other than in terms of a course grade or class standing. I thought I would help by defining possible MBA student failures. In my list, the first five are adapted from Mr. Godin’s article. The second five I created through my experience working with MBA students.

  • Failure of will. If you prematurely judge the members of your MBA team as a group of individuals that will never learn to work together or from whom you have nothing to learn, you have failed.
  • Failure of respect. If you succeed without treating your team members, your classmates, your faculty members, and your program staff with respect and honesty, you have failed.
  • Failure of trust. If you waste classmates’ and teammates’ goodwill and respect by taking shortcuts in assignments, not fulfilling commitments, and not being engaged in program activities, you have failed.
  • Failure of priorities. If you choose to focus on activities that do not contribute to your overall wellbeing, you have failed.
  • Failure of opportunity. If you do not avail yourself of the learning resources available through your MBA program, such as classmates, teammates, faculty members, and others, you have failed.
  • Failure of mentoring. If you do not engage others in mutual professional development, you have failed.
  • Failure of feedback. If you do not take the time to provide thoughtful, constructive feedback when given the opportunity, you have failed.
  • Failure of networking. If you do not take the time to establish lifelong relationships with your classmates, you have failed.
  • Failure of leadership. If you do not take advantage of the opportunities to lead during your MBA program, you have failed.
  • Failure of commitment. If you do not maintain the same level of commitment throughout your MBA program, you have failed.

Let me close with Mr. Godin’s closing sentence, “And, of course, the most self-referential form of failure is the failure to see when you’re failing.” Perhaps MBA students and faculty can help themselves see when they are failing by redefining failure.

For another perspective on failure and success, you may want to visit GiANT Impact’s web site and read the article, “Want To Be a Success? Celebrate Failure.”

What do you think, should MBA students redefine failure? What MBA student failures would you like to add to my list? What failures would you like to delete from my list? Provide your answers in the comments section below.

Invite others to join the discussion.


Rodney G. Alsup, D.B.A., CPA, CITP
Founder of

[Image by FreeDigitalPhotos.Net member graur razvan ionut /In accordance with terms of use]

7 comments for “Do MBA Students Need to Redefine Failure

  1. Kevin
    September 6, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    I think that in MBA students need to have a clear understanding of what the real goal is of the MBA program.

    It may be defined as simply as “To get the Degree.” This is another form of failure, failure to optimize the MBA experience. The willingness to put one’s self outside the comfort zone is where the real learning will take place. Senses will be heightened and learning is virtually exponential.

    Failure should be redefined by the MBA students as an unwillingness to stretch and question everything. I don’t think this should be left to MBA students alone. We are all have the opportunity to learn every day. We can be successful in our learning, which will include not meeting a goal from time to time, or we can fail to learn and experience life well lived.

    This was an excellent article and I thank you for the thought provoking experience.

    • September 7, 2010 at 7:53 am

      Kevin, aren’t you really suggesting that the MBA experience is about re-igniting the very act of thinking? Or perhaps igniting it for the first time?

  2. Doug Moodie
    September 9, 2010 at 10:00 am

    Maybe as students have been trained since 5 thta all that matters is grades, faculty should grade students on their newtworks, politenes, interaction with other students, etc.
    Of course the is much research that shows that their is little correlation between GPA and final success in life or business.

  3. Simona
    September 9, 2010 at 10:01 am

    Very interesting article Rodney. I have read it with great interest. I was thinking at my team, at work, and I have seen that your list can be very easily applied not only at the EMBA students level but also in any organisation. The only comment I have, in this respect is, to replace in your article the “my MBA team” with “my work-team”:)).

  4. Heather Wright
    September 9, 2010 at 10:27 am

    I completely agree with Kevin – “Failure of the Finish Line” or something to that effect should be on the list. There are many MBA students that miss opportunities during the program by remaining solely focused on just getting the degree.

    In response to the Failure of Feedback, that one goes both ways. There were so many times in my MBA experience that I wanted more feedback from the professors, but only received a numerical score. While grades are important, I would have appreciated the feedback so much more as a way to learn from my mistakes and/or successes.

    Great article… very thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Patrick Fulbright
    September 9, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    I agree with Doug Moodie (Dr. Moodie?) Today’s students are conditioned to focus on the grade and to challenge why did I get marks off for this and that instead of really understanding the comments and focus on what was said to increase their knowledge/learning.

    Toward the end of my EMBA program, with the finish line in sight, many students were more concerned with the grade than the learning especially when discussing the assignments between teams. No other team/classmate every asked me what I learned from that assignment, but always asked what my grade was!!!

    I believe that a lecture, early in the MBA program, should be developed around Mr. Godwin’s article. Interjecting this thought process early and reinforcing it throughout the program would go along way in changing current behavior and thought processes. In my experience, many of these ideas are already practiced, from Godwin’s article, in the business world. Interesting it hasn’t completely migrated over to the classroom.

  6. Maggie Murphy
    September 9, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    I agree with the comments of my classmates, particularly as it relates to faculty’s emphasis on grades. Grades are the measurement of success or failure in the MBA program and often the quality of team learning, collaboration, and many hours of hard work were completely overlooked in measuring success. The Captone simulation comes to mind where only the final score is considered. I think that Patrick’s suggestion regarding review of this article is excellent. I would also suggest that structuring the team constitution is where the team’s vision of success can be clearly defined and revisited throughout the program. Reviewing this article in conjunction with the constitution process would be a useful tool.

    Thank you for the excellent article and discussion.

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