July 24, 2019

In the digital world,

you need a to learn list not just a to do list

Michael Simmons has an unbridled passion for teaching people how to learn. In his work with successful leaders he has come to the following conclusion:

“At the highest levels, learning isn’t about something you do to prepare for work. Learning is the most important work. It is the core competency to build. It’s the things you never delegate. And it’s one of the ultimate drivers of long-term performance and success.”

Warren Buffet has invested 80% of his time in reading and learning throughout his career. He said the key to his success was to “read 500 pages every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.” His long-time business partner, Charlie Munger, said “without Warren Buffett being a learning machine, the Berkshire Hathaway investing record would have been absolutely impossible.”

Just to be clear, success still depends on strong execution of well thought out business growth strategies. The difference in the digital world is that the playbook for creating and implementing those strategies is still being written and changing all the time. As such, creating a to learn list is just as critical to your company’s success as creating a to do list.

Making the time to learn is the new critical success factor

Every C-level executive I talk with say they are so busy doing their business that they don’t spend enough time thinking about their business. Trying to prioritize a to do list of back to back meeting calendars, emails, texts and phone calls leaves them completely overwhelmed by the demands on their time and schedules.

Adopt the 5-Hour Rule: While busy executives know they have allot of new things they want or need to learn about, making the time to do often alludes them. One place to start is to adopt the 5-Hour Rule which sets aside a least one uninterrupted hour a day for deliberate learning. The key is to book this to learn time on your calendar before it fills up with your to do list of activities.

Create a To Learn List: Another effective approach is to draft, iterate and re-draft your to learn list. What are the most important things you want to learn that will have the biggest impact on the competitive performance of your organization? Here are some questions to get you started down this path:

  1. What digital technologies can our company use for increased competitive advantage?
    a. How much do we know about these digital technologies?
  2. What areas of our business are most vulnerable to digital disruption?
    a. What do we need to know to defend ourselves against these disruptions?
  3. What customer and market data to we need to make informed decisions?
    a. Do we know how to effectively and efficiently translate data into action?
  4. What skills and capabilities do we need to compete as a digital enterprise?
    a. Do we know how to acquire or develop those skills and capabilities?

Finding your learning sweet spot: what learning style works best for you?

While making time to learn and a list of things you want to learn are two good first steps, the key is to know what’s the most effective way for you to learn new things. Each person has their own approach to learning as the chart above illustrates.

Research studies have documented 7 different styles of learning. Each one specifies the individual learning techniques and processes that are most effective for that type of learning as seen below:

  • Visual (Spatial): You prefer using pictures, images and spatial understanding
  • Verbal (Linguistic): You prefer using words both in speech and writing
  • Aural (Auditory-Musical): You prefer using sound and music
  • Physical (Kinesthetic): You prefer using your body, hands and sense of touch
  • Solitary (Intrapersonal): You prefer to work alone and use self-study
  • Social ( Interpersonal): You prefer to learn in groups or with other people
  • Logical (Mathematical): You prefer using logic, reasoning and systems

The Power of Learning

In order to successfully compete in the digital world, you have to enable your employees to adapt and iteratively learn at the speed of disruptive technology change. Individual and team adaptation, mental agility and the ability to continuously create, innovate and iteratively learn is the primary source of sustainable competitive advantage.

Michael Simmons research into how people learn has led him to conclude that:

  • Knowledge is an intimately social organism
  • It wants to move, to land in other’s minds, to connect to other knowledge

To help you visualize how this learning process takes place, he developed the chart below:

Here are the lessons learned I think we can take away from embracing this approach to learning:

  • Make a continuous commitment to learning and acquiring knowledge and it will build up like compound interest
  • Prioritize one hour every day for deliberate learning
  • Keep a learning journal
  • Create a list of the most important things you want to learn that will have the biggest impact on the performance of your organization
  • Find out what’s the most effective way for you to learn new things
  • Find opportunities to engage in iterative discussions about what you are learning
  • Create a “knowledge sharing economy” culture within your organization

As always, I am interested in your comments, feedback and perspectives on the ideas put forth in this blog. Please e-mail them to me at here. And, if this content could be useful to someone you know please share it here: