A business that isn’t learning is one that isn’t going to be around for very long.
I can say that with certainty, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from running Simply Business for the last eight years, it’s that you can never learn enough – about your customers, your people, and your market.
The thing to worry about isn’t making mistakes and getting things wrong – it’s when you’ve reached a stage where you’ve stopped learning about what to do differently, and better. Every business faces a landscape that’s constantly changing, and the worst thing you can do is fail to move with it.
You need to be iterating, improving, and evolving your product set, and the service you offer to customers, to avoid becoming a victim of changing market realities and growing customer expectations.
That’s why any good business today will have an ethos of experimentation at its core. We’re no longer in the era of the five-year plan and the grand strategy. It’s fine – in fact essential – to have a strategy, but your everyday approach needs to be one that accepts the inevitability of constant change and disruption.
Faced with that reality, you need to go with the grain of uncertainty – experimenting into it, rather than hoping that your best-laid plans will somehow survive it. You need the flexibility and agility to change course, based on the evidence in front of you right now, not the strategy that was decided in committee six months ago.
In recent years, thinkers and entrepreneurs like Eric Ries have helped to popularise the idea of the lean organisation, where the agile approach widely used in software development is applied to company building as a whole.
Ries argues that everything should be organised around the feedback loop of ‘build-measure-learn’ – developing minimum viable products, testing them with customers, and applying what you’ve learned to iterate and improve.
This more experimental approach is exactly what’s needed to navigate the change that every company now faces. Some of your ideas are going to work and others won’t. Some will work but not the way you thought they would. Some problems will need to be attacked from an entirely different angle than you’d first anticipated.
Experimenting allows you to work through all those possibilities, and it avoids the nightmare scenario of investing everything in the theoretically perfect, exhaustively planned solution that falls on its face the moment you press go.
By experimenting in this way, we’ve learned all sorts of things about our business and our customers. We’ve learned that products I thought were sure-fire successes weren’t going to gain traction, and that changes that seemed helpful in theory were actually going to be poorly received in practice.
Experimentation means you don’t progress on the basis of guesswork and assumption, but on the hard truth of what your customers tell you they do and don’t want.
There are all sorts of things you need to build a successful business – the product, team, culture, and capital all need to be there. But unless all that is underpinned by the right attitude – that good is never good enough and you’re never done learning or improving – your company is never going to fulfil its potential.
In business, you are what you learn, and the more you can find out about yourself and your company, the better chance you stand of achieving long-term, sustainable success.
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