Scale-ups are learning the hard way.
Start learning the smart way!

Scale-ups are young innovative ventures that quickly transform themselves into full-fledged enterprises. This profound transformation is impossible without strategic learning about customer needs, international market, internal operations and product development. However, scale-ups are not learning for these strategic challenges. According to our research, they are good at identifying day-to-day obstacles and quickly learning how to get across them, but they never stop to ask themselves whether they are running the right obstacle course. In other words, scale-ups are learning the hard way.

Learning the hard way vs. the smart way

Learning the hard way may feel fast and give you an addictive rush when you’ve cleared the obstacle successfully. But it hurts, because you learn from your failures and lose precious time that could be spent on scaling your business. For instance, one CEO was learning about how to fill in new roles by doing everything himself and failing in it. How can scale-ups avoid the trap of painful yet limited learning? How can they learn the smart way?

Learning the smart way is a collaborative reflexive process that provides direction, depth and speed to your learning. Without direction, depth and speed you might be learning enough to deal with emerging challenges and keep standing. It keeps you very busy, but the progress you are making in scaling your company is very limited.

How to learn the smart way

Three elements are crucial for learning the smart way:

man sits alone against a brick wall
  1. Be curious while focused. Scale-up teams are continually stepping into the unknown. Curiosity helps to prepare yourself for it. Bring yourself in unfamiliar situations, meet and probe people with different views and experience. Know when you’ve stumbled upon something good, but walk away if necessary. Not every find is a good find. To keep the right direction, be critical of what to follow and what to ignore.

2. Create time to reflect. Reflexive learning requires you to slow down and think about what is really important. If the bulldozer is at your heels, it is too late to reflect; you need to run. But if you delegate some of your daily tasks to your team and find time to reflect on your goals and challenges, it can set you up to scale successfully.

3. Empower your team. In the middle of the unpredictable process of scaling your team deals with new challenges every day. Sometimes it feels like losing control over the situation. But if you set up the process that helps your employees to stop running and to reflect on new challenges together, it will help them to step into the unknown. For instance, one CEO stimulates reflexive learning in his team by practicing weekly one-to-one feedback sessions instead of a shallow group conversation:

I now have a management team of 7 people. I plan for half an hour every week with each of them individually, to provide them with feedback. Because I am taking a step back and giving them much more operational responsibility, I am actually in the position of pulling them out of the daily operations and giving them a helicopter view.

With more power comes more detachment, more distance from everyday operations, which gives your team the ability to look at abstract issues, think strategically and learn quickly.

1. Research on learning velocity in scale-ups is conducted by ScaleUpNation and supported by the Goldschmeding Foundation and Europees Fonds voor Regionale Ontwikkeling (EFRO).

 2. How to find time for reflection? Read our article: Scale-up CEOs need structured time for reflection on learning

Learning Velocity in scale-ups: Learning the smart way, not the hard way

The ‘fail fast, fail often’ mantra can become too costly.
As a scale-up, you do not need to learn from failure.

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Anna Fenko

Author Anna Fenko

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