How a learning culture can help you thrive in a volatile world

From startup disruptors that have challenged and contributed to the demise of some traditional industries to a global pandemic that has transformed consumer lifestyles, businesses have seen how rapid changes in the market can affect how they do business and whether they continue to do business. 

What can small businesses do to thrive in such volatility? Experts say leaders need to cultivate a learning culture. In this video, I will explore what a learning culture is and why it pays for small businesses to nurture one to thrive in a volatile world.  

What is a learning culture? 

The key to a learning culture is a growth mindset. In organisations that nurture a growth mindset, everyone believes that talent, knowledge, and expertise are not fixed or pre-determined—they can be developed and improved. Members accept that learning is a continuous process and there is a desire to improve the status quo. 

How do you know that you have a learning culture? 

Here are three questions you can yourself about your organisation to determine whether you nurture a learning culture: 

  1. Do you encourage candour and dissent?  
  2. Do you find value in experimentation and failures? 
  3. Do you value teamwork over individual performance? 

If the answer is YES to ALL of these questions, then it is very likely that you’re in a team that nurtures a learning culture.  

A learning culture encourages respectful candour and healthy dissent. When team members feel confident about being candid or expressing disagreement, it says a lot about the level of psychological safety in the team or organisation. Having a learning culture means that people are open to different ideas and points of view—and they know that healthy dissent can lead to improvements, increased efficiency, and growth. 

A learning culture finds value in experimentation and failures. Mistakes are the best teachers. Taking big risks can lead to big rewards. If we fail, we do learn a big lesson. Organisations that nurture a learning culture tolerate, even encourage, taking measured risks and experimentation—they view this as a learning process. It’s not the risk itself that they focus on: they focus on the rewards and lessons, either which benefit the organisation and the team. 

A learning culture values teamwork over individual performance. People learn more when others support them—and so organisations place value in teamwork, particularly in how they work together to master new skills and innovate. 

How does a learning culture help businesses thrive in a volatile world? 

Living in a volatile world means change is the norm, and many things change frequently. This means businesses will face problems they likely haven’t encountered before. Think about the pandemic and how it upended everyone’s way of life.  

How do you solve a problem you’ve never faced before? Well, how do scientists learn about the world? They do experiments. Inventors design a series of experiments to find ways to solve a problem that has not been solved before. And in learning cultures, teams experiment to solve problems. They value teamwork and team learning. 

Scientists and inventors don’t always get it right the first time. Behind their success are a series of failed experiments. In learning cultures, failing is tolerated and encouraged—because failures provide lessons. They value and encourage experimentation, even if it means failing, because they believe that it drives growth. 

There is a caveat for this analogy. Experiments that fail again and again is not sustainable in the long run, particularly for small businesses with limited resources. But part of nurturing a learning culture is learning to adapt to limitations beyond your control. Experimenting is not the end goal, but a means to an end. It’s a way to learn and a way to grow.  

Try something once or twice and prepare for it not to go according to plan. Define the losses you are willing to take before you put a stop on your experiments. More importantly, learn from your mistakes and use that to improve what you already have. And if you find something that works, make tweaks so that it fits your business model. 

Albert Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Scientists and inventors need to be open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. They are open to listening to different points of view. Just like in learning cultures, which value candor and dissent, and nurture psychological safety so that people can speak freely and respectfully.  



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