Why is learning critical for your company’s success? V2

What it the purpose of this article?

Enable founders, CEOs, boards of directors, C-suite, and investors to discuss what people need to learn and how to learn. The focus is on your company’s value creation plan.  The concepts also apply to all other parts of your company.

You can download a PDF of this article from: Why is learning critical to your company’s success V2

 What are the critical learnings in this article?

  • Facts, assumptions, knowledge, experience, and skills are rapidly becoming out-of-date.
  • Making and executing decisions based on out-of-date facts, assumptions, knowledge, experience, and skills often leads to company failure – be it a startup or long-established global company.
  • The challenges are: leaders (e.g. board directors, C-Suite) not wanting to learn and/or unable to learn, determining what to unlearn and learn, as well as how to learn.

 Why focus on learning?

The inability to learn is the root cause of many companies failing. “The assumptions on which the organization has been built and is being run no longer fit reality.”1  This is true whether you are a pre-revenue startup or a long-established global company.

Why are assumptions critical?

All forecasts and plans are based on assumptions.  It is impossible to predict with 100% accuracy what will happen in the future and what the results will be from your decisions and actions.

It’s getting harder to make appropriate assumptions about the future because your company’s ecosystem will be getting more complex, the interactions between ecosystem members will be getting more complex, and changes will be occurring more rapidly to both your ecosystem members and the nature of their interactions.

Past results also often reflect assumptions rather than facts.  For example:

  • Did a good result occur due to good talent and good process OR was poor talent and poor process lucky?
  • Why didn’t customers buy your solution? Did you ask your customers?  Did they tell you the complete truthful explanation?
  • The interaction of your companies ecosystem members was complex. Hard to actually determine what the cause and effects were. Did your analysis reveal correlation rather than cause and effect? Correlation could lead some one to say “cancer causes smoking.”
  • Did you identify the past critical assumptions for success?

How fast is knowledge growing?

In 1982, futurist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller estimated that up until 1900, human knowledge doubled approximately every century, but by 1945 it was doubling every 25 years. In 2020 it was doubling every 12-13 months.2

How do you know if your knowledge is out-of-date?3

Knowledge becomes out of date and decays.  The rate of decay varies by the specific area.  Just as the amount of knowledge is rapidly increasing, the amount of obsolete knowledge is rapidly increasing. Your decisions and actions must be based on the current situation, not on what existed a few years ago.  Your decisions should not be based on hopes, dreams, unvalidated assumptions, and missing or incorrect facts.

What is learning?

“Learning is about acquiring diverse, rare, and valuable chunks of knowledge through people, information, and experiences.”4  Learning must result in value.  You need both diverse and in-depth areas of learning, which will change over time.  Learning is far more than facts and data.  New mental models, frameworks, paradigm, and ways of thinking are all part of learning.

Are company learning efforts effective?

Most companies fail to help their employees learn.

  • 70% of employee report they do not have mastery of the skills needed to do their jobs. Only 25% of respondents believe training measurably improved performance. Only 12% of employees apply the new skills they learn in leadership and development programs to their jobs.5
  • 7% of the leaders polled by a UK business school think their companies develop global leaders effectively.6

What are the challenges to learning?

  • Knowing what to learn and what questions you need to answer. McKinsey states that the first step in strategy is asking “What are the right questions?”7  Are you focused on the right problem? Albert Einstein supposedly said “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.”
  • If people do not apply what they learn, they will forget 42% after 20 minutes, and 75% after 6 days. 8
  • You need to unlearn obsolete knowledge.9
  • Finding the relevant knowledge to be able to address your problems.
  • Being able to filter out the ever-increasing amount of mis-information.
  • Finding the right people with the appropriate knowledge.
  • Learning at the wrong time. You learn best when you have to learn what is needed immediately.
  • Learning the wrong things. Learning what has limited impact on performance and value creation.
  • You don’t have the ability or desire to learn new: mental models, paradigms, or areas of deep expertise.

What areas do you need to learn about?

The following are some of the areas:

  • Understanding the members of your company’s ecosystem. For example, customers: what are the cash paying customers urgent problems and needs for which they are willing and able to pay to solve? How may of these customers are there?
  • Understanding how the ecosystem members interact and impact each other. For example, pressure from various members can result in shareholders voting in board members who are focused on dealing with climate change.
  • What are possible future scenarios and trends, and how will they be different from the past?
  • What are the talent capabilities required to make decisions regarding the company’s competitively differentiated value creation plan?
  • What are the appropriate decision-making processes? Strategic decision making, tactical decision making, and day to day decision making processes are much different.

Some of what you need to learn includes: facts, knowledge, mental frameworks, paradigms, skills, processes, and analytical techniques.

How do you learn?

The key principle of learning is to learn and apply the learning at the time you need it.  This can be done in many ways:

  • Coaches and mentors helping you to address your problems and needs. These coaches and mentors could include colleagues and external advisors. You may have to pay your external advisors for timely access. The value of learning is reduced if you have to wait days or weeks to address your issues.
  • Formal education at which you work through your specific problems and needs.
  • Micro-courses (a few minutes to an hour) to immediately help when you have a problem or need.
  • Online help systems to provide you with immediate answers.
  • Reaching out to experts in your network, both paid and unpaid.

Use the Feynman Technique10

This technique was developed by Richard Feynman, Nobel Laurate Physicist.

  • Write down what you know about the problem or need. This includes facts and assumption.
  • Be able to teach it to a child. Use plain simple words, without acronyms and complex terminology. If you have difficulty in making this short and simple, then your have the opportunity to improve your understanding.
  • Identify what you don’t know. You may not know what you don’t know. Your research may involve contacting others as well as reading.
  • Organize what you’ve learned into a story with simple sentences and analogies. Tell the story of your learning out loud.

Richard Feynman’s example of how to explain what the universe is made of to grade 7,8,9 students. “All things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into each other”.

Write notes out by hand, not typing into a phone, tablet, or notebook.11

  • Understanding and the ability to apply learnings requires note taking. Take notes whenever you want to lean: e.g. meeting or interviewing people, attending seminars.
  • Research has shown that hand taken notes result in deeper understanding and improved ability to apply the learning, compared to typed notes. Typed notes are usually much longer than hand taken notes.
  • The research hypothesis is that hand taken notes require your brain to think about what you’re seeing and hearing, and to synthesis and process your learning.

What are your next steps?

You must develop a learning plan for your specific situation, be it yourself or your entire company.

  • Document the historical results of your company’s value creation plan?
  • Analyze the historical value creation results? Compare the historical results compare to the competition. List your findings.
  • Document the current talent capabilities and process for making decisions regarding your value creation plan.
  • Define the changes you need to make to the talent and process based on what you’ve learned from: your historical analysis and from others.
  • Create your learning plan for your decision makers. Who needs to learn what and how they will learn.
  • Establish a learning performance monitoring process to address questions such as: how well are individual leaders learning? What is the impact of their learning?


1 Perter F. Drucker, “The Theory of the Business,” HBR.org, Harvard Business Review,1994 September-October issue, https://hbr.org/1994/09/the-theory-of-the-business

2 Michael Richey, PhD, Chief Learning Scientist, The Boing Company, “Future Systems of Learning and Knowledge Development: Human Capital, Sociotechnical Systems and the flow of Information“, SRI International,  https://www.sri.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/NSF-08.06-2020-Future-of-Learning.pdf

3 https://hbr.org/2012/11/be-forewarned-your-knowledge-i

4 Michael Simmons, “The No. 1 Lifelong Habit of Warren Buffett: The 5-Hour Rule”, Medium, https://medium.com/accelerated-intelligence/the-no-1-lifelong-habit-of-warren-buffett-the-5-hour-rule-57884dce03f3

5 Steve Glaveski , “Where companies go wrong with learning and development” Harvard Business Review Oct 2, 2019  https://hbr.org/2019/10/where-companies-go-wrong-with-learning-and-development

6 Pierre Gurdjian, Thomas Halbeisen, and Kevin Lane, Why leadership development programs fail McKinsey Quarterly Jan 1, 21014 https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/leadership/why-leadership-development-programs-fail

7 Chris Bradley, Angus Dawson, and Antoine Montart, “Mastering the building blocks of strategy”, McKinsey, October 2013 article


8 Steve Glaveski, “Where companies go wrong with learning and development”, Harvard Business Review Oct 2, 2019 https://hbr.org/2019/10/where-companies-go-wrong-with-learning-and-development

9 Mark Bonchek  , Why the problem with learning is unlearning. Harvard Business Review November 3, 2016 https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-the-problem-with-learning-is-unlearning)

10  Taylor Pipes, “Learning from the Feynman Technique”, Medium, August 4, 2017 https://medium.com/taking-note/learning-from-the-feynman-technique-5373014ad230

11 Cindi May, “A learning secret: don’t take notes with a laptop”, Scientific American , June 3, 2014 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/

What further reading should you do?

The seven essential elements of a life-long learning mindset

Jacqueline Brassey, Nick van Dam, and Katie Coates McKinsey Feb 19, 2019


How do you grow your company’s value?


Is your company  planning to fail?