If there is a single point that is directly applicable to every business it’s this: the companies best suited for long-term survival are those who learn better than their competitors. The most successful firms operate as learning organizations: it’s part of their DNA and they organize themselves around it. These companies have swiftly reacted to the changes brought on by the internet and made learning a priority. Though the internet has been around for over 25 years, its full impact on the competitive landscape is in its early days.
Let’s take geography as an example. The competitive landscape that centered around where a business is located has flattened, levelling the playing field and skyrocketing the number of companies you compete with. What a company is doing across the world directly impacts you—their customers are very likely your customers too. This requires a completely different playbook.
Transitioning into becoming a learning organization isn’t easy, so where do you start? Interestingly part of the solution is found in technology itself. Software products naturally produce a lot of data. This data enables faster feedback loops in almost all domains, from physical retail to pipeline operations. A common example is customer validation. A business can collect information and learn about customer behaviour in minutes instead of conducting lengthy multi-month surveys. This faster learning loop enables you to be more competitive, build better products, enter new markets, and develop a stronger understanding of your customer.
But a learning capability is also a function of organizational culture, which comes down to people. Technology companies have developed a new cohort of learning-obsessed individuals across all areas in the business, from engineering to accounting. It's not often that we come across a client at Versett that has demonstrated the necessary commitment to continuous improvement that we typically see in Silicon Valley companies. The opportunity exists to use learning to build a competitive advantage in almost every industry.
Attempting a Transition
In a world where competitive moats erode each day due to the abundance of talent, capital, and technology; your ability to adapt and stay ahead is the only way to stay in the game. At its core, learning is how you stay competitive.
Here are a few ideas:
1. Embrace failure and learning by building a culture of experimentation.
Failure is a fundamental part of learning, it’s how we stretch and learn new things. So how can you embrace failure as an organization? One common solution is a setting aside time as a group to focus on new ideas. Hackathons get a bad rap but they are not an inherently poor idea, we often see organizations mixing up the target for the goal. The goal is to drive experimentation and learning, not to say you do hackathons.
Sometimes this is a simple reframe of failure as a learning opportunity, other times it’s a matter of reconfiguring your internal incentive structures. Are people rewarded solely for delivering things on-time, on-budget? Experimentation requires flexibility around time and output.
2. Bottom-up not top down.
Good ideas are often emergent, the result of a creative combination of forces. Creative assembly is a core part of both strategy and product development. You need to relinquish the control that comes from top-down planning and provide your team opportunities to try new ideas to try to learn what works, free from the stigma of failure. I am reminded of how new Shopify employees are all given a copy of Mindset by Carol Dweck to read, opening up their mind to the power of growth thinking. Empower your teams to take risks; the best ideas often come from the frontlines, but end up underwhelming by the time they reach the decision-makers through the management chain.
3. Encourage and fund learning. Invest in your team. Be a learning leader.
It’s not enough to say you are a learning company. Put your money where your mouth is and fund learning initiatives. Invest in your team’s development by both offering resources, and finding the right opportunities for them.
For example, the technology team at the NYTimes went through Reforge’s growth course, giving everyone a shared lens and vocabulary on what makes products grow. This is immensely valuable for people building products and would be something often overlooked or restricted with the “that’s not my job” type argument that plagues traditional companies. These policies and attitudes often kill creativity and the motivation to stretch and innovate.
"Perhaps the single most impactful thing we did was to bring growth product thinking and practice to the Times. Growth product is the concept of leveraging product mechanics to drive growth, through a laser-like focus on the key conversion moments in the customer journey. It has become commonplace in the tech world, but it’s a big adjustment and a major lever for companies that have traditionally relied on direct-marketing driven conversion.
The key for us was finding, and then listening to, some super smart people. I want to thank Andrew Chen, Brian Balfour of Reforge, and Aaron Shildkrout for teaching us how to do it. Reforge in particular really helped us educate ourselves en masse, injecting great thinking and practice into the org. I think about 150 Timesians went through their Growth Series."
My colleague Vinciane has written about it before here. If you believe learning is important, as a leader you need to model that. Pay for people to learn. Give them time and space to learn. YOU need to learn and share that.
4. Learn holistically
Learning is about far more than just making sure your teams spend time on professional development. It’s a mindset, a culture, and way of working. Some ways learning manifests:
- Learning about your customers: How do they behave? What motivates them?
- Learning about your business: What channels drive growth?
- Learning about your product: Where do people get value?
- Learning about what works: What experiments can you build? What bets can you place?
- Learning from your competitors: What are they doing that customers value?
How can you foster a team of learners that see opportunity in every activity?
When we talk about learning, people think of formal education. What digital players do well is apply the notions of learning–experiments, failure, growth–to all aspects of their business. They embody the spirit of learning throughout the entire organization. They continue to find ways to do better: working as a team, serving their customers, or even how to learn better.
As you start to think about how you can compete with these companies, don’t just consider the product-based element. Ask how they got there? What cultural institutions, like learning, needed to be in effect for these products to get built? Organizational transitions like these are incredibly challenging but rewarding and necessary to build a robust, competitive company. This is just the first step, but a rewarding one.