The benefits of trial and error: entrepreneurs debate how to learn on the job

Entrepreneur discussion
Christian Annesley
Staff writer
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How best should a business leadership team tackle and resolve its day-to-day issues? As our BusinessZone Networks event explored, often making a judgement call and backing yourself is still the most viable way ahead.

The explosion of smart data and analytics opportunities for businesses in recent years doesn’t mean the days of leadership through trial and error are behind us – for from it.

At a BusinessZone Networks event, held at Goldbrick House in Bristol’s West End, the question of how leaders learn was discussed in detail, and participants shared some distinctive takes on the challenge.

Sammy Mansourpour, managing director of integrated marketing business AgencyUK, said: “The reality of how we learn as leaders is different from what you might think: if we are honest, we learn mostly in the business through trial and error, and I’m sure we aren’t the only ones. There are issues to deal with constantly in any business and we often as business leaders have to go on gut instinct.

“We are a service business and have decisions to take all the time. We may be more informed than we were on day one, when we set off on this journey, but the process is essentially the same.”

Mansourpour said the challenge for leaders of many fast-growth businesses was keeping up.

“By the time you have managed to learn how to run a £1m turnover business you are leading a £2m business, and the rules have changed. It can feel like things are constantly getting away from you, if you are not careful. For me, the answer is to hire a really strong, versatile and capable management team. But that’s only part of the answer, because you still have to learn how to manage the management team. And test-and-learn is still the basic approach we take.”

By the time you have managed to learn how to run a £1m turnover business you are leading a £2m business, and the rules have changed.

Ben Heald, chief executive of Sift, which publishes BusinessZone, said the notion of trial-and-error learning was fascinating and still relevant.

“Theorising about situations is one thing, but actually having to deal with a situation on the ground and sort it out is often when people really learn. It is hard to teach someone how to deal with a cash crisis, for example. The learning comes when you have to live it; it has to be experiential.”

Graham Massey, business head of brand agency The House, said organised, systematic learning by leaders could only ever be a part of the picture for a successful business.

“Entrepreneurs are often those who have to courage to follow a gut instinct and to learn whether it is right. The power of intention counts for a lot – making things happen through your will, and by carrying the organisation along on the journey. You can make your own luck along the way.”

I think intuition is one of the things that marks out those who are successful in business.

Massey said agency work was an  example of the need for this learn-on-the-job mentality.

“You get an opportunity and you have to deliver on it, by hook or by crook. Once it’s delivered you move onto another challenge. It means we have to keep that power of intention and that positivity to drive opportunities and see them through.”

Martin Coulthard, a successful serial entrepreneur and recent founder of Lush Data, added: “I think intuition is one of the things that marks out those who are successful in business. Innovative businesses make decisions in a context of great uncertainty, with incomplete information. The challenge it to get most of your decisions right in that context, although you are bound to get plenty wrong too. That’s a description of trial and error, for sure.”

Watch Chris Shaw, commercial director of Advantage Business Learning, explain the military term VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous), and how it relates to the way entrepreneurs' think and learn.

Around the table:

  • Matt Hatch, managing director, Red7 Mobile
  • Peaches Golding, principal consultant, Moon Consulting
  • Graham Massey, business head, TheHouse
  • Andy Farmer, managing director, MyOxygen
  • Sammy Mansourpour, managing director, AgencyUK
  • Ben Heald, chief executive, Sift
  • Martin Coulthard, founder, Lush Data
  • Nick Teige, founder, Redland Search
  • James Cook, chief executive, SpiderGroup
  • Joe Tuckwell, co-founder, Moresoda
  • Chris Shaw, commercial director, Advantage Business Partnerships and partner, Cultural Gravity
  • Christian Annesley, session chair


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