What Have You Learned So Far This Year?

Over the past few weeks I’ve had several very fruitful conversations with clients and they’ve all centered around this one question, “What did you learn from _____?” Most of them didn’t want to “waste” a whole lot of time on the conversation and one even confessed, “I’m not a rear view mirror kind of guy. I do something and then move on.” Can you relate?

I wouldn’t be surprised. Most of the business owners and entrepreneurs I know don’t spend a whole lot of time on evaluation and reviewing past actions and results. Why? Because, in general, most of us have a penchant for the future. We’re always looking for what’s ahead of us, not behind us.

But, as you also probably know, the old adage about history is absolutely correct, “Those that don’t learn from history are bound to repeat it.”

So if you don’t want to “repeat history,” I’d highly encourage you to make sure you use these last few weeks of this year (or any time of the year) to stop long enough to ask and answer the question, “What have I (or we) learned this year (or quarter or month or week)?

To help guide you through this exercise, I’d suggest you start with the following four questions to help you mine what you’ve learned this past year.

1. “Based on our results, what did I/we learn?”

This is a radically different question than asking, “How did I/we feel about that [event/product launch/marketing campaign/strategy/etc.]?” In general, when I ask the question, “What did you learn?” most business owners and entrepreneurs go to their feelings. “I felt it went well.” Or, “Overall, I think is was a good effort.” Or some other banal response.

Who cares? The real question was/is, “Based on your results, what did you learn?” That immediately changes the point of reference from something internal (intuition) to something external (data). At that point, people can’t hide.

For example, I was recently discussing this question with a company that made a significant strategic investment this past year—and it’s not panning out as they predicted. On the other hand, they recently were at an industry event and ended up with quite a few decent sized deals that are in a different strategic direction. In other words, what they thought would be a growth engine and what the market is telling them is a growth engine, are two completely different things.

While most of us as entrepreneurial leaders like to trust our gut, the reality is that none of us bats 1,000%. So, what are your results from this past year telling you? Mine them. They have a lot to say.

2. “Based on our financials, what did I/we learn?”

This may seem like an obvious question, but common sense is not common. The number of business owners and entrepreneurs who actually look at and use their financial spreadsheets for evaluation and intel is a lot smaller than you might think.

In fact, I’ve even consulted with bankers who weren’t doing this. For example, I once asked the executive team of a financial institution, “Does anyone know how profitable this loan product is?” No one did. They thought they were (gut reaction), but no one knew for sure (yet, they were running all kinds of promotions for this loan product—and, as you know, there’s nothing worse than running promotions for something you’re losing money on—despite what some may think, more volume does not magically produce profit 🙂

Similar to the point above, data gets you and me past emotion and intuition. You may like to think that a specific sales person is a great performer (and another isn’t), but what do your financials say?

You may like to think that a specific product line or territory is highly profitable (and another isn’t), but what do your financials say?

You may like to think that your strategic ideas for this year are what drove your growth, but what do your financials say?

There’s a treasure trove of great insights in those financials (and supporting documents). The question is, “Are you mining them?”

3. “Based on our customer interactions, what did I/we learn?”

This may be my favorite of the four questions. Why? Because, at the end of the day, you and I are far more likely to succeed and make more money if we’re offering to the people in our target market what they want (and, more importantly, what they urgently want) than what we think they need.

Unfortunately, when I ask this question, far too many business owners and entrepreneurs don’t know how to answer it. Why? Because they’re not interacting enough with real customers and prospects. Or, they’re not asking the kinds of questions that might solicit the kinds of information that would help them answer the learning question.

To help you get started, here are a few questions worth asking …

  • What are you urgently looking for that you can’t find a good solution to in your marketplace?
  • What do you wish we’d change in our product (or service) to make it even better for you?
  • What would be a dream come true for you if we created it?
  • What keeps you up at night?
  • What part of your interaction with our company drives you nuts (or frustrates you)?

When you ask those kinds of questions, you end up with a treasure trove of intel that should be informing and influencing your strategy and actions for the years to come.

4. “Based on my educational experiences this past year, what did I learn?”

At their core, great leaders are always great learners. Why? Because no business or organization can consistently perform at a level beyond the capacity of their senior leader. If you want to grow your business, you have to grow you first (or you become the impediment to growth).

So, as you reflect back on this past year (books read, courses taken, conferences attended, coaching sessions engaged in, mentoring conversations had, magazine articles and blog posts read, etc.), what have you learned?

If you take the time to do this exercise BEFORE you create your plan for next year, I’m confident that you’ll create a better plan—a plan that will be based on what you’ve learned this past year in order that “history won’t repeat itself”—except, of course, in those things you’ve learned that you should repeat 🙂

To your accelerated success!

P.S. The above exercise is just a very small part of a course I teach each December entitled, “Double It: How to Create a Killer Growth Plan to Double Your Business in the Next 12, 24 or 36 Months.” If you’d like to join us this December, and create a killer growth plan for this year, make sure you click here >> to read all about it (Note: If you’re reading this at some other point of the year, I’d still encourage you to click here >> because it’s never too late to create a killer growth plan).

P.P.S. If you have some other questions you like to ask yourself each year, make sure you add them in the comments section below (or click here >> if you’re reading this by email or RSS feed).

Flickr photo from Bitmask