Success and Learning Companies

I was thinking the other day about companies that I admire and enjoy working with the most. What do they have in common? At first I thought it was that they are friendly and open, but that knocked a couple of favorites out of the running. I also know some very nice companies that are not that fun to work with. They are stuck in a pattern that cannot be broken without extreme intervention. When you are in a role like mine that is designed to help people, and they won’t let themselves be helped – it’s frustrating. Still, it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy being with them.

So if I narrow the criteria down to “I really like the people,” and “I really like working with them,” I get a handful of choices. What sets these businesses apart is a willingness to learn and an open mind that considers alternatives. And the best of the best are the fast learners. So I started thinking about all the companies I encounter but may not necessarily have the privilege of working with. The visibly successful firms seem to be highly adaptable, and very quick at educating themselves. In fact, as I recall conversations with leaders in those companies I am reminded of stories about how they overcame mistakes with speedy analysis and change. Fast learners.

This is a indirect lead-in to what makes some companies more successful than others. I am going to say that for my tastes and values it is not enough to be good at what you do, you have to also be likable to be truly and sustainably successful. Being pleasant to work with comes from sincerity and says a lot about the people in an organization. Is being an fast-learning company an enterprise trait or another attribute of the people? Analysis of successful examples generally reveals a respectful tolerance for risk. Learning – and the mistakes that go with it – is potentially expensive. And responsive learning additionally calls for taking chances in trying new things.

There are two more attributes of fast-learning companies that I think are critical and they apply to the very tip of the firm’s leadership. These managers know that mistakes are part of the process. No one wants to make an error, but when one occurs it is embraced for the valuable feedback it provides. Second, these leaders can make timely decisions often applying some variation of my favorite credo: “Don’t let perfect get in the way of good.”

Being a learning company means having the aptitude and intent to continually improve and the ability to assess risks with an eye towards action.  These folks never assume they have found the best solution, just the most sensible so far. They hire people that are smart, but aren’t committed to one particular way of doing things. Learning companies also have a process for acquiring and applying knowledge. First, they have to make room for learning and value the investment it represents. Then there needs to be a means to discuss, refine, and model outcomes. Finally once a great idea is incubated, learning companies know when and how to apply it. Risk averse companies rarely enjoy the successes of a fast learning company.

And to take it one step further, aren’t your favorite employees those that can quickly understand new tasks and roles? Do you choose a supplier that only does things one way or one that can grow and adapt with you? My money will always be on the people and businesses that choose to be smarter.

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