Learning to Learn

He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance, one cannot fly into flying.

-Friedrich NietzcheAs an amateur percussionist for 19 years, I can remember when I first heard a tape of Buddy Rich playing drums. It was a tape of the Buddy Rich big band recorded in the mid 70s called “Ease on Down the Road”. I was amazed at the intricate patterns he was able to play, both by his creativity and by the physical ability he had that allowed him to produce these sounds.At the time I had only been playing drums for about a year, but I sat down at my set inspired by what I had heard and tried my best to play along. As you may guess, I was unable to keep up with what he played- I sounded much more like Buddy Hackett playing drums than Buddy Rich. As a beginner I had no chance at replicating a pattern played by the world’s greatest drummer. What I took from that experience was the knowledge that if I ever hoped to play like Buddy Rich, I had better practice – a lot. So I dedicated myself to becoming a better drummer, and I practiced every day; I just about wore out that tape from listening to it over and over again, hearing something new in it each time I listened.After a few years of practice, I was able to play a few of the riffs Buddy played on that tape. It brought me incredible satisfaction to finally be able to play along with it. What enabled me to play along was my years of practice, and to me, they were worth it. That practice also brought me the opportunity to play in an honor orchestra at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, an honor band in the Rose Parade, and led me to later play drums in a bagpipe and drum band with some of the best players in the world. Not only had I achieved the goal I set, the work I put in brought other rewards; I ultimately enjoyed the side rewards far more than being able to play along with my tape.In our businesses, we sometimes see competitors who appear to be so far ahead of where we are that it can be discouraging. We are made to feel that no matter how hard we work we will never beat Wal-Mart or Amazon.com at their own game. By looking to these businesses as inspiration, rather than as behemoths who are trying to crush us, we have the opportunity to learn how we can be more like them.What makes Wal-Mart such a dominant force is not just the volume discounts they get as a huge chain, but their reputation for great customer service and friendly employees. Amazon frequently is more expensive than their rivals, but they sell more because of their extremely easy to use ordering system. As a business consultant for the Small Business Advisory Network I have learned that these elements are more important than price to the success of a small business.I’ve learned that developing a reputation as a company with excellent customer service can be much more valuable to your business than having the cheapest price for your products. I’ve learned that having an easy to use shopping system is critical to e-commerce web sites. Knowing that these are the reasons people buy from your competitors is insufficient.Just knowing that I wanted to play like Buddy Rich however, was still short of making me actually sound like him. I knew that it would take a lot of work to just play along with a tape, let alone ever create music like him. So what do we do? If knowing what we want our business to be like leaves us with lots of work to do, is it worth it? Most entrepreneurs will say that they’re too busy to practice – it’s hard enough trying to just run their business.Douglass Adams wrote, “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” This is proven true time and time again.But as W. Edwards Deming wrote, “Learning is not compulsory; neither is it survival.” We need only look to the bankruptcies of Kmart and pets.com for examples of businesses that refused to learn from their competitors. They surely knew what their competitors did better than them. They might even have wanted to do those things themselves. But they didn’t put in enough practice to make these changes.Target and Barnes and Noble, however, are two examples of thriving businesses that DID learn from their competitors. Instead of just seeing how their competitors operated and hoping they could be more like them, they actually put in the time and effort it would take to change, and are now reaping the rewards of doing so. Learning only occurs when we see what we want to become and work toward becoming it.I encourage you to figure out what your bigger competitors do better than you. Then decide how you can practice these skills to get better at them so you can use these new skills in your business. While you may never beat your competitors at their own game, you can learn some of what makes them successful. By using these skills along with the things you already do that make you unique, you provide a better overall option to prospective customers.This “Business Update” was written by SBANetwork Sales Technology Specialist Matthew Walker.

Posted in Managing Change, Uncategorized.

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