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Learning to Achieve Sucess

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This case describes James Dyson’s unusual and challenging path to entrepreneurial success with the design and marketing of the vacuum cleaner bearing his name. Dyson’s life journey is one based on a desire to solve problems and learn from mistakes, to persevere and excel. In the late 1970s, Dyson began developing a vacuum cleaner based on the belief that “people actually wanted to see the dirt that they were collecting.” Inspired by an industrial cyclone at a timber mill, he created a vacuum that used centrifugal force to separate the dust and dirt. No bag, no clogging, no loss of suction. It didn’t look great, but it worked. After five years of testing, tweaking, fist banging, cursing, and more than 5,000 mistakes or prototypes, as engineers call them it was there.”

Dyson says, “each iteration of the vacuum came about because of a mistake I needed to fix. What’s important is that I didn’t stop at the first failure, the 50th, or the 5,000th, I love mistakes.” Dyson’s life experiences in being willing to experiment and run the risk of making mistakes, to learn from those mistakes, to persevere in light of daunting circumstances, and to achieve excellence relates very directly to the learning and performance management concepts discussed in Chapter 6.

A. Why is the opportunity or freedom to make mistakes crucial to learning? Although success is positively reinforcing and therefore helps in learning, failure can play a valuable role as well. Success demonstrates what a person does well; failure identifies what an individual does not do well and therefor needs to learn. Failure helps to define one’s current limits and identify areas where further competency development is needed. People who do not experience failure are not fully aware of their developmental needs.

James Dyson was well aware of the value of making mistakes and learning from them. This was made clear to him in his first job. Dyson recalls that his first boss, Jeremy Fry, taught him that if people are allowed to make mistakes, they will learn very quickly. Fry also taught Dyson to mistrust experience, especially the experience of entrenched individuals and organizations because they tend to loathe innovation. Often innovation comes about as a consequence of failure sometimes repeated failures.

B. How can the opportunity or freedom to make mistakes contribute to performance improvement? Making mistakes enables a person to discover first-hand what works and what does not work. Direct experience with making mistakes is a more powerful learning force than is observing others making mistakes. It can also provide for more powerful learning than perpetual success. Making mistakes also serves to identify one’s developmental needs. If people are fearful of making mistakes, they will not take risks, they will not innovate, and they will not experiment. Avoiding risk-taking, innovation and experimentation may make a person feel safer, but are unlikely to improve performance substantially.

However, risk taking, innovation, and experimentation are more likely to create the potential for sustained performance improvements. C. What advice do you think James Dyson would give to someone who is in charge of training people and evaluating their performance? James Dyson would likely advise trainers and evaluators to give people the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them. He would advise trainers and evaluators to encourage people to work hard and to persist in developing their competencies and achieving their goals. Mr. Dyson would probably also stress a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them, and to give employees the ability to persevere.

This case discusses Sir James Dyson’s successes and failures. His efforts are detailed, as well as his unique perspective on business. This case outlines how Sir Jams Dyson put quality and innovation over all else. The case talks about how as the inventor of the bag-less vacuum cleaner, he faced many challenges, not only in inventing but in obtaining initial funding for his inventions. The case talks about how Sir James Dyson recalls that his first boss taught him that if people are allowed to make mistakes, they would learn very quickly. Also he recalled the arduous development process for his vacuum cleaners, and stated that at some point he stopped listening to everyone and went with my instincts. He was particularly adept at making mistakes, but didn’t mind because as an engineer mistakes are how he learned.

Nelson, Debra L. & Quick, James Campbell. (2012). Organizational Behavior. Mason, Ohio: South-Western.

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