Mistakes are the compost for growth and learning

Every Thursday from 12:00-1:30, the Green Garage hosts an open lunchtime conversation about the leadership of triple bottom line businesses. Regularly in attendance is Harriet Greenwood, who operates her consultancy Greenwood Solutions out of the Green Garage. This post, originally published in Harriet’s blog, was inspired by the conversation at one of those lunches. 

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Mistakes are crucially important to entrepreneurs. When you’re working on something new, it’s normal for things to go wrong. The only real failure is the failure to learn from what happens. Life experiences – which inevitably include mistakes – are the best teacher.

Some programs encourage entrepreneurs to write business plans and go the bank right away for financing.  Those business plans are often pure fiction.  When you don’t really know the business yet, you make uninformed plans.  Entrepreneurship is really adult learning.  You need to have a learning plan that includes actually putting your ideas into action when you start a new business – this is much more important than a plan written to please a banker.

A traditional business plan gives a framework but you need real world experience, mistakes and interpersonal input to flesh it out.  When you start to try making and selling a product or providing a service to clients, that’s when the real learning starts and the knowledge/resource/skill gaps become apparent and the truth of the business starts to appear.  Mistakes are upsetting and can be costly – but if they arise from really trying out a part of your business idea, they can be the best education for entrepreneurs.

Several weeks ago I was at the weekly Sustainable Biz Lunch at Green Garage in Detroit and a colleague told the story of working with two entrepreneurs. They had been through a 12-week business incubator program and had developed an 82-page business plan with beautiful charts and spreadsheets.  After a bit he asked them, “what business do you want to be in?” – and they looked at each other and had no answer.  It was never possible for that business plan to grow into a business.  It was a glittery framework and you could hang lots of ornaments on it like a Christmas tree – but it never got down to the truth.  Without the truth, we cannot make progress.  The heart of the business is missing.

A different way to grow a business is to start small, working in a garage or spare room and use your own funds to start doing/making something.  When you try to sell in the marketplace – you run head-on into reality and the true strengths and weaknesses of your ideas and plans will emerge.  You get to know the good, the bad and the ugly about yourself and the marketplace.  By identifying the mistakes and weaknesses in your plans, your business becomes stronger and more grounded.  This knowledge is invaluable and is the compost to needed to nourish a growing business.

A good learning experience invites people into the truth.  Many times our biggest dose of truth comes from the mistakes we make along the way.

Harriet Greenwood


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