Stay learning. Stay in charge

Companies struggle to manage the present and also remain relevant in the future. There’s a way to fix that. And it starts with a new approach to learning

Indrajit Gupta

[By Gerd Altmann under Creative Commons]

Most companies struggle to expand the frontiers of their business while maintaining focus on their current business venture. Trying to discover new innovative ways to grow while doing everything to leverage the current opportunities isn’t easy. Only a few entrepreneurial firms are actually able to successfully pull off both—and that too, only in short bursts and seldom over long periods in their history.

Let’s be clear: Companies need to balance operations and innovation. They need exploration and exploitation. Stoke curiosity and maintain focus. Both states are necessary for success. Unless you can win the short-term battles, it is unlikely that you will have the funds to wage and win the long-term war. And if you focus too much on perpetually discovering new ways to do business, the chances are that you will run the risk of not sufficiently exploiting the current opportunity and rush ahead in the constant, seductive search for the new opportunity.

In many ways, this remains the eternal challenge within the corporate sector. Most CEOs, leadership teams and boards understand this intuitively. But it is another matter whether they are able to create the conditions within that help them develop the capacity to keep renewing themselves every few years.

So what does it take to create an impactful firm that remains relevant in future?

Don’t snuff out curiosity

Focusing on operational excellence isn’t a bad thing per se. I was at a lunch with a senior executive at a leading company earlier this week. During the lunch, our conversation kept getting interrupted by calls from his customers. He said it was common for him to receive calls from customers, even junior executives from the shop floor, throughout the day. And to fend off competition, he had to keep such folks happy. We are a traditional company, he said. We are focused on running our business smoothly. We’ve seldom invested the time to learn new things that lie at the periphery of our business, he said.

This is a common occurrence in many organisations that I know. They are so obsessed with current operations—and the dynamics of their own industry—that they seldom look beyond to see what’s changing at the fringes. What’s more contrary to popular notions, disruptive change doesn’t spring up all of a sudden, completely unannounced. Most times, new technologies are around for a while, before they become mainstream. The MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) movement kicked off a decade ago. And yet, just how many universities in India have chosen to experiment with it—let alone embrace it? Only a handful.

On the other hand, I know of an amazing entrepreneur who had, throughout his career, the foresight to see what’s next and to constantly reinvent the business. There are some like him obsessed about shaping the future. Yet, leadership is a team sport. And building the same conviction internally within his own organisation often becomes a challenge. Since people down the line simply didn’t appreciate the need for change, it become a massive obstacle.

Instead, one way out is to periodically throw a challenge at their smartest executives to step up and explore new frontiers and come up with new ways of harnessing growth. And there are enough creative ways to design such challenges.

Instil discipline 

Building a culture of learning needn’t be episodic. Instead it requires a continuous, collaborative way for leadership teams to come together and build a shared understanding of the strategic challenges facing the business. Above all, it requires the discipline and rigour to ensure that learning journeys result in real progress. That’s where a lot of well-meaning learning initiatives come undone. Many leadership teams prefer to race off to an annual offsite to shape the future. They invite a facilitator to help them build a robust plan. The experience is both energising and ambitious. But once they’re back at work, somehow the magic tends to disappear. All those grand plans of working differently don’t seem to fructify. This is a common occurrence.

There’s one way to deal with it: stop looking at such offsites as an end in itself. The real work invariably begins after the workshop is over. And yet most facilitators, trainers and learning folks don’t always look at designing this as a continuous learning experience.

We need to accept that cultural change takes time. And it is best done in small doses, rather than one bold flourish. And it needs to be led by leaders from within.

So, what specifically can you do differently? When you throw challenges at teams, there is need for an integrated approach. It could entail many things. Like for instance:

  • Frame them as action learning projects linked to key business challenges.
  • Create cross-functional teams consisting of some of the smartest leaders in your organisation.
  • Appoint coaches and mentors either from within the organisation or outside to support these teams and create opportunities for reflection and assimilation.
  • Make the learning process fun and engaging. Look at bringing in new immersive experiences that open people’s minds to new possibilities.
  • Put in place a governance mechanism led by the top leaders to monitor the progress of the teams.
  • Don’t insist on perfection. Instead, create a culture of experimentation. Build prototypes and test them iteratively.

These are just some of the ways to get more value out of your strategic learning programmes.

Today, sifting out where to look for new learning is as much an art as it is a science. Ten years ago, most businesses would refuse to share their learnings with peers for competitive reasons. Inbreeding created its own issues of complacency and lack of agility. Today, more and more pragmatic firms are realising that sharing what they know—and learning from their peers—is a smart way to enhance their own understanding. And therefore, building networks within not just their own industry, but even outside the country can be a big opportunity to unlock new insights.

Search for the unknown

Leadership teams that learn together, stick together. Building a shared understanding of the future begins with a collective search of the unknown. The future is invariably fuzzy and unclear. And it calls for an ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. Leadership teams sometimes find it hard to cope with that. For instance, if you’re a successful big-box retailer and want to aggressively expand into convenience stores, you might easily discover a network of such smart firms in other emerging markets that you can learn from. Yet convincing the leadership team to step out of its comfort zone can often be a challenge. The legacy of heady success could prevent you from viewing the opportunity in new ways.

Oftentimes, the source of innovation lies outside your industry. And that’s why strategic learning often needs a new lens. Listening deeply to voices that are different from one’s own needs high levels of empathy and the ability to synthesise and coalesce different views. Above all, it needs the humility to learn.

(A shorter version of this column was first published in Business Standard)

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About the author

Indrajit Gupta
Indrajit Gupta

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Indrajit Gupta is a business journalist and editor with over two decades of experience. He was the Founding Editor of the Indian edition of Forbes magazine. Within four years of its launch, Forbes India became the most influential magazine in its space.

He is the co-founder and director at Founding Fuel.

He has served in leadership positions at many of the leading media brands in the country. Before taking up the assignment to start up the India edition of Forbes magazine, Gupta was the Resident Editor of The Economic Times in Mumbai and before that, the National Business Editor of The Times of India.

Over the years, Gupta has built a reputation for grooming talent and creating highly energised and purposeful newsrooms. He has interviewed several leading global thought-leaders and business leaders including CK Prahalad, Ram Charan, Wayne Brockbank, Sumantra Ghoshal, Carlos Ghosn and Nitin Nohria, and also led cutting-edge joint research-based projects with McKinsey & Co, The Great Place to Work Institute, Boston Consulting Group, KMPG and Coopers & Lybrand.

He won the Polestar journalism award in 2010 and was awarded the Chevening fellowship by the British Foreign office in 1999. Gupta is an alumnus of the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai and a B.Com (Hons) graduate from St Xavier's College, Calcutta.

Gupta teaches a course on Business Problem Solving at his alma mater. He writes a column named Strategic Intent in Business Standard’s edit page. He lives in Mumbai with his wife and two young daughters.

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