Preparing to thrive in testing times.

The perennial power of experiential learning

As I suspect is the case for many homes right now, life inside Drake Towers is currently something of an emotional roller coaster, with one child in the middle of his GCSE exams, and the other taking his A Levels.

And thus, each day’s hesitant greeting at home time, is a roulette wheel of triumph or disaster.

But what has this got to do with running a business? Let me tell you; in unpredictable times, exams can be the perfect metaphor for running a business.

When studying for an exam, you can look at all the past-papers in the world, but right up until you’re in that room, turning over that first page, you have no idea what’s going to be on the exam.

Just like you can do all the market research in the world, gather all the focus groups and statistics, but until that service hits the website or that product hits the shelf, you have no idea, really, of how it’s going to sell.

And just like you can do all the strategizing you like. It’s only as the future unfolds that you discover whether your plans are standing on solid foundations, or sinking into the shifting sands of changing tastes, changing economics, and changing fortunes.

And yet. And yet… there’s a lot of value in doing those past-papers.

Even though we know those same questions almost certainly won’t appear, ones like them probably will. Your answers will be better because you seen something like it before. And equally important, your attitude, confidence and composure, will be far more conducive to success, because crucially, you’ve been through the pressure of the experience before.

This is why we work with scenarios. And it’s why, increasingly with clients, I’m encouraging them to do their scenario work, not simply as an intellectual exercise, but as an experiential one.

Running through a scenario as a team, making decisions as it unfolds in accelerated time. Stopping the clock at key moments to pause and reflect, not just on the decisions, but on how we are making them, how we could make them better and faster, and how we could better prepare and organise ourselves to thrive in that kind of environment.

Some things you can teach by explanation. But other things, you can only learn by experience.

I can try and explain to my son that, while he might be right to saunter along with full confidence in his Plan A: that he will get the A* he needs in his best subject; he should really revise his second best as well, you know, just in case. But it’s probably only when he experiences the visceral anxiety of having screwed up his first paper, that the lesson will actually get learned.

Just as it’s only when you’re in that meeting room, watching the new launch miss it’s budget by 50%, that those contingency plans you never really paid much attention to, if they existed at all, suddenly take on a whole new world of importance. That’s when the real learning happens.

That’s when a team shifts from one sauntering confidently along with Plan A, to one that’s genuinely prepared for an unpredictable future.

And for those of you with kids (or grandkids) sitting the big exams this month, my thoughts are with you. Wish them the best. And if they do have bad days, remind them that in the grand scheme of things, success and failure all wash out in the end.

Not that they’ll listen – that’s probably another thing they will have to experience for themselves.