As a new business advisor, I often meet aspiring entrepreneurs looking for that magic formula for success. I tell them that success in today’s rapidly changing environment simply means learning and adapting faster than your competitors. There are no static rules, or constant states to strive for. Yet the fact is that most of us are very bad at learning since it implies risk and failure.
It’s easy to say that the best business leaders never stop learning, but it’s harder to put specifics behind this process. I found some help on the steps in a new book, “Never Stop Learning,” by Bradley R. Staats. From the Flagler Business School, he brings a great combination of the latest research in behavioral science with engaging stories that demonstrate real learning in business.
I will paraphrase his key points here, adding my own insights on how they relate to business people and situations that I have encountered over the years:
- Continuous learners are willing to fail in order to learn. As Mark Zuckerberg once said, “in a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.” Steve Jobs and Walt Disney are two entrepreneurs who took risks but failed multiple times, before achieving their legacy as winners in the world of business.
Don’t expect failure not to hurt, like you have just lost your child. But then, you realize that the pressure to find success is replaced by the freedom to begin again, having learned from your mistakes, and be less afraid of uncertainty. Just don’t make the same mistake twice.
- Focus on the process rather than the desired outcome. Focusing on the outcome too soon is misguided, because you may have no idea how to get there. Better to take one process step at a time, with failure and learning at every step. Multiple small successes are key to the long-term motivation and determination needed to reach visible success.
Bill Gates wanted a personal computer on every desktop, but he kept his focus on motivating and supporting one application developer at a time. Eventually this momentum attracted more and more end users, until he achieved his desired outcome.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions rather than rush to answers. Dynamic learners recognize that “I don’t know” is a fair place to start – as long as you quickly follow with a question and some research. The scientific method, and all kids, understand that all learning starts with a question. People rarely learn anything new while giving answers.
- Take time for reflection and relaxation. Fight the urge to act for the sake of acting and recognize that when the going gets tough, the tough are recharged, and take time to think. Too many of the entrepreneurs I meet feel too busy to think before acting. The result is that they repeat their mistakes, and hope for a different outcome each time.
I’ve worked with several talented entrepreneurs who refused to slow down, rest, or delegate in their drive to beat competition. Eventually each lost their health, or failed to learn from mistakes, to the point that their business suffered or could not keep up.
- Stop trying to conform – be yourself and willing to stand out. When you are truly yourself, this gives rise to positive emotions, and you are more likely to be motivated to expend the necessary effort to learn. Conforming to other’s expectations makes you a follower, not a leader. Being a follower puts you at the losing end of competition.
- Don’t try to fix weaknesses – play to your strengths. Most entrepreneurs believe they need to excel on all dimensions to achieve long-term success. They forget that business is not a one-person operation. The best strategy is to build a team with complementary, but not redundant, skills. For example, technical entrepreneurs should focus on the product, and find a partner with deep experience in finance or marketing. Each can then learn from other’s strengths, for a winning whole.
- Build a portfolio of experiences – both deep and broad. Accumulating experience in a specific skill improves performance, but at a decreasing rate. Variety is more productive. If tasks are related, knowledge transfers for one area to another – and becomes a learning accelerator. Use both specialization and variety as powerful learning tools.
- Recognize that learning is not a solo exercise. Business is the ideal environment to learn from others – advisors, investors, your team, customers, and competitors. Two-way relationships are crucial, since helping others to learn is a pre-requisite to self-learning. Be sure to put aside your biases and ego to more effectively learn from others.
As an occasional angel investor, I find that solo entrepreneur startups rarely get funded. Very few inventors also have deep business strengths. The ideal co-founder team is one with deep technical skills, and the other with requisite business and financial strengths.
Living in today’s learning economy means that all of us in business must approach learning with four mindsets: focused, fast, frequent, and flexible. Learning must be never-ending, and anyone can master the process. Don’t be your own worst enemy, and be too busy or lose the will to learn. Learning is the only way to stay relevant, reinvent yourself regularly, and thrive in business today.