The historian David Christian is best known for the idea he’s dubbed Collective Learning. In his TedTalk — “A History of the World in 18 Minutes” — he explains: “What makes humans different is human language. We are blessed with a language, a system of communication, so powerful and so precise that we can share what we've learned with such precision that it can accumulate in the collective memory. And that means it can outlast the individuals who learned that information, and it can accumulate from generation to generation. And that's why, as a species, we're so creative and so powerful, and that's why we have a history. We seem to be the only species in four billion years to have this gift.”
The concept that language is what separates humans is not groundbreaking. But, once you begin to consider it, it’s the kind of thing that changes the way you see the world. Collective Learning is what allows us to begin in media res — to not ever have to reinvent the wheel, only build upon it. It’s what has led to the hockey-stick growth of human intelligence. It’s a powerful force.
Moore’s Law is one of the better known “rules.” As technologists, we viscerally feel and see this growth occurring almost daily. New and better, built on top of learnings from the recent past power the future.
But how can you harness that force at your company? What are the keys to turning your startup into a Learning Organization?
Learning Begins At Onboarding
Startups start with a foundational idea; then things often become frantic. As ThirdLove founder Heidi Zak told us in our most recent OPERATORS interview, it’s essential to keep your mission front-of-mind as you grow.
One way to make sure new hires understand what your company is about and what you expect from them is to write down your foundational materials in a succinct and digestible document. As Joshua Lee of StandOut Authority explained on Inc.com, new hires can be given access to a training library with video and written information about their responsibilities, the company ethos, and how to grow within their role. Often, the onboarding process can be overwhelming with so much information being delivered all at once — the written guide can be a helpful tool to allow new hires to have something to refer back to as they get their sea legs.
However, delivering all the information via writing or video is not enough to create a true Learning Organization. The next key is to create an organization where experienced employees are empowered to train new hires. As Jayna Cooke of EVENTup explained in the same article: “Highly skilled employees can transfer their knowledge to new hires, expediting the process that it would normally take a new employee to get up to speed if they are only trained by management. Allowing new hires to ‘pick the brain’ of senior employees is beneficial to both the employees and the company as a whole.” This can take the informal structure of a company where asking questions is encouraged to a more formal structure where new hires are assigned a mentor.
On top of just learning the ropes, this onboarding system allows new hires to more quickly become empowered members of the team. When a new employee finishes spending brainspace getting up to speed, they become addictive knowledge creators within the company as well. In a series of essays for Khan Academy on Collective Learning, the historian David Christian explained: “The lioness is still like a stand-alone computer — she has only as much memory as she can accumulate in her lifetime. Humans are more like networked computers, with a (more or less) infinite capacity for memory to expand.” If you can save the time it takes to upload the knowledge of your company, you can more quickly allow your new hires to start expanding the power of your startup.
Lessons Learned Must Be Remembered
Zak also told us about that early on at ThirdLove, everything felt like a Sky Is Falling Moment. “Over time, you get perspective that the little things that make you frenetic or completely stressed will be an insignificant blip on the journey of your company,” she said.
However, there’s also value in remembering how you get through those big, scary moments. ThirdLove built their entire frontend and backend from scratch and had a near-existential disaster when, against the wishes of the loud protestations of the engineering team, they switched over to Shopify Plus. The switch turned out to be a gamechanger for the startup which has since grown into a $750-million behemoth.
The reason companies like ThirdLove succeed is that each decision isn’t made in a vacuum. The fundamentals of that decision — that their direct-to-consumer site crashing was unacceptable and that leveraging existing reliable platforms could supercharge their business — became knowledge that informed decision-making going forward. Lessons were not just learned; they were remembered.
While Zak was correct to move to Shopify Plus, even a wrong decision can be valuable at a true Learning Organization. As the author Paulo Coelho wrote, “When you repeat a mistake, it is not a mistake anymore: it is a decision.” Build a structure at your startup where mentors share both successes and failures, so mistakes are not repeated. It’s uncomfortable to own a screwup, but if it can lead to future wins then it can be a growth moment for your startup. If your startup does not allow for the ownership of mistakes, your company will be doomed to repeat them. Believe us: it’ll be doubly frustrating the second time around.
Learning Starts At The Top
Most fundamentally, to be a Learning Organization, your startup has to be well-run. If employees fear their boss, mistakes will be hidden instead of learned from. If they don’t believe in the direction of the startup, they’ll be less invested in training others. If you, as a founder, stray from the foundational idea — either out of lack of focus or lack of execution — your employees will be scrambling to keep up rather than continuing to learn and grow.
As Zak explained, if your company is growing rapidly, you better be growing your leadership skills at an even faster rate. Treat leadership as a skillset like any other — if you feel overwhelmed, hire an executive coach to help teach you how to better lead. “If you don't invest time and if you don't recognize your strengths and weaknesses, it can literally bring down your company. You see it all the time,” Zak said. “Founders can be the best thing that's ever happened to a company or the worst thing that's ever happened.”
Much of the growth of a founder will be around how to manage, but there are also scores of seemingly simple back-office responsibilities that often get fumbled or put on the backburner during the hectic early stage of a startup. The reason is simple: founders often enter the startup space with little-to-no management experience and therefore are forced to learn a whole new bag of tricks while running a company.
As Zak learned with ThirdLove, building from scratch is not always the best way — sometimes it makes more sense to leverage an existing platform. For most startups, that means trying to skip the painful learning steps of making the wrong decision and get advice from other founders, investors, friends, or the internet. Since none of those sources really knows the nuances of operations, most advice will be wrong and could be dangerous. Rather than having founders work to build an entirely new knowledge base (there will be plenty of other learning to do!), we built AbstractOps as a plug-and-play smart organization with an intuitive dashboard to allow founders to level-up quickly without having to learn from their own mistakes. With AbstractOps, founders can outsource the back office, effectively porting in the knowledge-base and learning of an experienced COO.
“Looking back, if I've learned anything, it's that leadership is constant,” Zak told us. “Developing your leadership skills never ends.” That development takes time — learning is an active process, not a passive one. By outsourcing the back office, a founder can have the space to learn and grow, and also to teach.
Time Spent Learning Is An Investment
The time spent creating a Learning Organization will pay off exponentially. There’s no reason to start from zero again and again — as knowledge accumulates and new hires become teachers, your company can become a Learning Organization where everyone gets better every day. Build on top of giants to prepare for a better future!
Communication is what separates humans. It can also separate your startup. You started your company to solve a novel problem — so don’t waste time reinventing the wheel as well.