If Netflix had remained a DVD rental service, IBM had given up after its first failed computer, or Amazon had stuck with only selling books, they'd all be obsolete by now.
Instead of resting on their laurels, though, they recognized the need for reinvention and adapted to industry changes. They each embraced learning as an integral part of their culture and growth strategy, and as a result, they not only survived -- they've thrived.
Becoming a learning organization isn't always about embracing new tech, though; sometimes, all it takes is a shift in perspective and asking, "Can you imagine?". Here are 5 ways to inspire your team to always be learning (and build innovation into the fabric of your culture).
1. Embrace Failure as an Opportunity to Grow
Too often, people are afraid to take big risks at work. They fear that they'll be reprimanded or lose their job if they fail. That's what sets learning organizations apart from the status quo: they encourage a willing-to-fail attitude where experimentation is supported, regardless of the outcome. It's about providing a safe space and communicating to your team that the benefit of lessons learned will outweigh potential costs.
Remember: failure is not permanent, it's simply an obstacle to overcome. If you start to look at missteps as opportunities instead of disasters, you'll be back on track in no time.
2. Learn from Your Experience
Encouraging experiments and out-of-the-box thinking is a powerful tool to inspire change. But unless you analyze, discuss and learn from the results, you're missing the point. It's been said that those who can't remember the past are doomed to repeat it -- so learn from your experiences instead of making the same mistakes over and over.
It's also worth looking to other companies who have tried and failed before you, too. The experiences of others can provide valuable insight for how you can do things differently -- and better. Examining your own learnings against your competitors' progress will help you create benchmarks for future success.
3. Inspire Growth With a Clearly Defined, Dynamic Vision
One of the easiest (and most overlooked) ways to foster a learning culture is to have a clear vision of where the company is going. Keep in mind, however, that learning organizations are defined by their ability to transform -- a static vision will only take you so far. You need to continuously recalibrate your goals and strategies to inspire forward thinking and a culture of change.
Failing to look ahead can have big consequences: Borders bookstores didn't have the foresight to factor technological changes into their company vision, and the business went bankrupt in 2011. At the same time, their biggest competitor Barnes & Noble embraced digital and ramped up its online sales -- and is still going strong today.
At O2E Brands, our Painted Picture is a crystal-clear snapshot of how our company will look, feel and act at the end of every five years. The fixed time frame and regular updates ensure we stay relevant and abreast of industry trends.
4. Don't Wait for Knowledge -- Create It
Learning organizations see learning as a behavior to be nurtured every day. They encourage their teams to pursue and embrace new ideas by creating regular opportunities for them to learn.
Companies like AT&T and Pixar have created their own "universities" to fast-track their employees' growth and prepare them for future careers. We have several programs of our own, like Our Leadership Way and A-Player Development Program. By creating knowledge and facilitating our employees' ongoing learning, we're building leaders from within.
5. Ask Your Team to Imagine the Impossible
We regularly ask our team, "Can You Imagine?", and have them write their wildest dreams for the business on a wall at headquarters. This simple exercise has been the catalyst for some of our company's biggest wins: one person wanted to get 1-800-GOT-JUNK? on The Oprah Winfrey Show; another saw us on a Starbucks cup. Others visualized our expansion into Australia and into new industries.
By imagining (and then reaching for) larger-than-life goals, we were able to make all of these dreams a reality. Inspiring a learning culture takes communication, passion and teamwork -- but when you invite people to strive for the impossible, big things happen.