Either You Win, or You Learn - A Perspective on Learning Culture

by Isabella Merloni on an interview with Adrian von Mühlenen

What is it like to continue working on your venture within the corporate? Adrian and Thomas, co-founders of Sustragil, took their vision on the Chemovator Journey. Now, they continue to work on Sustragil back in the organization. Read about their valuable experience and the importance of a learning culture.

The attitude towards learning

Adrian: “I was always curious and wanted to understand what exactly are the driving forces in machines, in human interaction, generally in nature. My mum used to say that I would go to school all my life. Naturally, I always enjoyed learning and trying new things - ideally challenging, disrupting, and rethinking them.”

Thomas was looking for more than a decade for a way to leverage efficiency in product safety-specific information with a simple and automated system when he met Adrian - the perfect partner with technical insight and visionary spirit. The two share their scientific background having a Ph.D. in Human Nutrition and Materials Sciences. Their vision is to create transparent and seamless product safety information that stops companies from doing the same activities such as Safety Datasheet (SDS) validation repeatedly.

Adrian’s initial motivation to work on the project was to improve efficiency by connecting domain expertise and building a chemicals knowledge graph. More than that, he wanted to create something new, start from an idea, test hypotheses, and take it to market. With the support of Chemovator and their experienced founders, the vision then turned into a prototype product.

How similar competencies and skills may pretend harmony & consensus and then can lead to conflict

Coming from a scientific background, the team shared similar ideas and approaches. Yet as two “techies” without profound knowledge in business, they needed to learn many things on that terrain. At Chemovator, they received great support from Benedikt Scholz, Entrepreneur in Residence and an experienced entrepreneur and consultant himself. Benedikt helped the team in slicing down the problem, getting to the bottom of things, and finding the focus on digitizing product safety data sheets (SDSs). Bottom line is: how to eat an elephant? One bite at the time.

It took nine months to hire the first real complementary employee bringing the entrepreneurial and business background to the founding team. Far too long! During that crucial time, similarities in the team constellation turned out as an environment that does not engage in challenging new ideas properly. The team’s homogeneity created a competence trap, a kind of blindness towards external and interdisciplinary views and feedback. Perfecting the concept on shared standards was prioritized over validation with customers. In retrospect, the necessity to test a yet unknown prototype or even a minimum viable product with potential customers as early as possible seems obvious. However, mutual understanding led to self-centered confirmation (bias) and lowered openness and willingness to gather actual market feedback and learning.

At the same time, although purpose and vision (but not values!) were shared, individual motivations differed. Hence, there was no clarity about who does what. The different responsibilities, and recognition of decision-making powers in the team were blurred. Striving for harmony, team members ended up rather unsatisfied. Shallow harmony can prevent constructive arguments from tackling profound issues. Furthermore, forced consensus among partners behind the pretext of politeness can blur responsibilities, prevents self-organization, and delay potentially important decisions.

Cultivating the courage to learn

How good can best practices be? Can you rely on them? Is there a one-size-fits-all approach to everything, or do some (or all) situations require individual consideration? Truly pursuing a learning culture means understanding the root of something and identifying the key drivers, and bringing your insights on them to an abstraction or a meta-level, so that you can apply them in different settings of another situation. Moreover, drilling deep into new challenges to achieve a shallow understanding of a “learning practice” can strengthen psychological security to understand connections, be open for new learnings and acquire new knowledge if necessary. Therefore, you should be willing to commit failures and communicate and share them openly.

In turn, this can provide valuable confidence to challenge everything, question things for their origin, once understood, experiment to gain more early insights. The human capability to learn allows not only generates knowledge in the German sense of “Wissen schaffen”. It also helps to validate hypotheses and relieves the fear of the unknown. Hence, pursuing a learning culture means life-long learning by collecting experience, understanding causal relationships, and connecting inferences. The most valuable take-away from living a learning culture may be the opportunity to learn how to learn and to stay self-critical. Doubt is the best tool to keep up-to-date. It can unveil parts of wisdom that should be reconsidered.

Lessons learned! Pro-active challenging, customer-centricity, and quick learnings

Pursuing a life motto, “there’s no giving up,” makes you develop a certain humility for challenges and possibilities. In some situations, you have to confess that you do not know it all. Of course, there will be times when you face problems that seem desperate. Yet even in times of crisis, you need to look out for opportunities. Just waiting for them to come around won’t do the job, however. As Louis Pasteur put it, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” You need to generate and seek possibilities actively, and most importantly, you need to have a growth mindset and be willing to accept and pick up the opportunities.

Adrian: “A major learning for us is to take decisions to a decision, implement, measure, and readjust. Don’t postpone! It would be best if you had facts and insights to get a grip and put yourself into the driver’s seat.“

Living a learning culture also means continuously enhance your learning ability. Stay critical, curious, and close to your customer. And constantly adapt and refine your hypotheses, building on insight. And don’t forget to convert your insights into tangible results so that you can measure whether or not you solve the customer’s problem and whether you are about to achieve a product-market-fit. Walk the talk! Focus on what generates value for the customer – try to focus on the outcome (the job your solution is to deliver to the customer) and forget about the output. Discipline, accountability, and an interdisciplinary team are more important for success than mere creativity. A good team starting on an average concept has a higher chance to succeed than a mediocre team starting on an outstanding idea.

Today, Adrian still works on Sustragil but as a project within his old unit. The key lies in understanding the pain point of the central EHS Master Data management team, acquiring a profound understanding of drivers, and deriving a product roadmap thereof. Big corporates are still using waterfall planning tools. So they have to be super fast in learning. This requires the courage to challenge and openness to share fails. Implementing the lessons learned from previous experiences allows for challenging new developments and decisions at Sustragil more effectively today. Any elephant in the room is addressed more quickly.

A take-home message and some actionable advice

Getting to the root cause of things and understand the “job to be done” by a product to generate value for the customer does not only hold for new projects and startups. It starts with yourself and what your drivers are. What makes you enthusiastic? Where are your skills? Now, try to find an overlap between the answer to these two questions. Most probably, you should follow your heart. It will help you navigate your journey. And while doing that, stay curious and acquire new knowledge. Challenge things and especially best practices. Doubt them. Learn. And you will win!

How do you implement a learning culture in your organization? Let us know in the comments below!

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Adrian's Background

Adrian has 15+ years of background in technology, 10+ years experience in technology innovation, and a +4 years background in entrepreneurship.
He was a founding member of a satellite of a swiss research and technology organization (RTO) in Basel. Then he moved to his customer to become a founding member of the BASF technology incubator in dyes and optics. Building on this experience, he moved on to head the digital transformation of the global R&D and customer labs of BASF Coatings. His focus was to unleash the knowledge in the information (remember the DIKW - Pyramid) to improve time to market and product lifecycle management. During his exploration of data and information assets, he discovered a digital asset that became the core of Sustragil - a former Chemovator Venture which he co-founded.