In today’s fast-moving world of business startups, learning trumps knowing every time. What established businesses know through experience keeps them from looking for new and innovative ways to do what they do better, cheaper, and faster. I’m convinced that’s why most mature companies are slowing down or buying their innovation through acquisition, rather than building it.
In her classic book, “Rookie Smarts,” Liz Wiseman, one of the top thought leaders in business, amplifies this point as it relates to hiring and cultivating the curious, flexible, youthful mindset in keeping a mature company young and competitive, as well as keeping experienced employees more productive.
She outlines four distinct ways that business people doing something for the first time, whether they be entrepreneurs or people in a new role in a larger company, tend to think differently than experienced veterans. With my focus on startups, I can translate very easily how her points lead to more innovation even in the entrepreneurial environment:
- Maintain an unencumbered mind. True entrepreneurs, like backpackers, are ready to explore new terrain, more open to new possibilities, and don’t get stuck in yesterday’s practices. They tend to ask the fundamental questions, see new patterns, and notice the mistakes of others. They are not afraid to act boldly and tend to recover quickly.
- Seek out experts and return with ideas and resources. Startup founders need to be more like hunter-gatherers, seeking out experts and trying new ideas to address their challenges. They are not entrenched in their domain, and don’t look for data that confirms what they already know. They don’t hesitate to disseminate the knowledge to their team.
- Take small calculated steps, moving fast and seeking feedback. Experienced business professionals tend to take big steps, move at a comfortable pace, and are not on the lookout for changing conditions. Entrepreneurs have to be like fire walkers, take a risk, move quickly one step at a time, searching for milestones on the way to success.
- Improvise and work tirelessly while pushing boundaries. Great entrepreneurs, like pioneers, work hard, keep things simple, and focus on core needs. They don’t have a comfort zone or protocol to fall back on. They assume that new tools and structures will have to be built along the way. Progress on the learning curve is their satisfaction.
But even as an entrepreneur, you can fall back too quickly on prior experience, or settle into habits that are too comfortable. Here are some things we all need to do change perspectives and learn to learn all over again from time to time:
- Transport yourself in time and place to your first professional role. Remember how you felt then, what you did, and how you approached work. Use this insight to reset your own thinking, and to provide great leadership guidance to other members of your team.
- Multiply your expertise with additional experts. Avoid the temptation to jump in first, and consult other experts to bring new insights into the challenge at hand. Don’t give up until you have found new patterns to an area you thought you knew.
- Reverse the learning role with new team members. By asking a junior colleague to mentor you, you will more likely hear new approaches or technologies and get new insights on your customer base or business challenges.
- Expand your professional network to new groups. Actively look for people with views contrary to your own. As you change the stream of information and consider alternative views, your thinking will expand.
- Take a step back and remap your terrain. Try to visualize your domain the way a newcomer would see it, without the filters you have already built in your mind. Map out the current players, rules of the game, cultural changes, and constituent alignments.
- Swap jobs with a colleague for a day. Use the exchange to gain new business and customer insights, and to formulate the naïve questions that a newcomer might ask. The swap will be an exciting learning experience for both of you.
True entrepreneurs thrive on the experience of learning, maybe more than the experience of success. That’s why the best entrepreneurs I know can hardly wait for a chance to exit their current startup as it stabilizes, and start again down a less familiar but new learning path. Once you stop learning, you stop having fun, and you stop succeeding.