In case you haven’t noticed, the world is changing and the pace of change is forever increasing. New technologies are replacing previous technologies. Whole new industries are being created while others disappear. Career paths and job skills are often becoming rapidly obsolete. The speed of change increasingly demands that both businesses and people become more flexible and adaptable in order to survive and thrive in the business world.
Learning agility has always been an important skill of leaders but the current pace of change is making it one of the most essential. Learning agility is the ability and willingness to learn from experience and then apply that learning to successfully perform under new situations. We cannot know today what changes will happen tomorrow and how they will impact what we need to know to survive in the future. However, if we are strong in learning agility, we have the flexibility, adaptability, resourcefulness, and thoughtfulness to react well to changing situations and to be successful, no matter what life throws at us.
The speed of change increasingly demands that both businesses and people become more flexible and adaptable in order to survive and thrive in the business world.
Those who are learning agile are comfortable with the uncomfortable, able to face uncertainty and accept risks, observant and continually making connections between experience and results, flexible and ready to try new ideas, open to and seeking new thoughts, and confident in their abilities based on their experience. This willingness to take on risks and challenges is not reckless but is built on confidence and track record.
We can further break down this ability to learn from experience and the application of learning to new situations into five elements of learning agility:
- Mental Agility – The learning agile leader is skilled at critical thinking and able to analyze complex problems and continually make fresh connections between bits of information, experience, and results. They are able to draw conclusions and predict results based on their information and learning.
- People Agility – The learning agile leader is able to relate well to others; collaboration is strong, drawing out the experiences of others, and helping others draw conclusions and learn. They seek feedback and are open to input from others. They recognize that the information gathered from others is often not simply black or white, but falls into some shade of grey. Thus they are able to make good judgements about value and veracity.
- Change Agility – The learning agile leader is comfortable with the uncomfortable. They seek challenges and learning opportunities, enjoy experimentation, and are able to weigh and accept risks. They seek alternative processes and ways of thinking rather than status quo.
- Results Agility – The learning agile leader is able to deliver results in first-time situations; they inspire teams to perform in the face of uncertainty. They accept responsibility for mistakes and view them as learning and growth opportunities.
- Self-Awareness – The learning agile leader is reflective. They know themselves well, understanding strengths and weaknesses and using every opportunity to grow. They are well aware of their impact on others and are willing to question others and be questioned themselves.
Change is impacting every business at every level. Leaders need to hone their own learning agility as well as build it into members of their organization. Only by doing so can we prepare ourselves and our team members for the future. Building learning agility in ourselves and in others can be accomplished through the following steps:
- Be inquisitive – Ask questions of yourself and others such as: “Is there another alternative?” “What else do I need to think about in this decision?” “What are 10 more ways I could approach this?” Learning agile leaders don’t get stuck in SOP (standard operating procedure) or NIH (not invented here).
- Be proactive – Look for patterns in complex situations. Practice active listening, using the phrase, “Tell me more.” Be a sponge, soaking in information from a wide range of sources.
- Be reflective – Look back on decisions and understand the process, what was known and what was not known. Think through the “what-ifs” of decisions and actions. Seek input, asking for specific feedback. Ask, “What are three or four things I or we could have done better here?”
- Be courageous – Take risks and be willing to experiment. Look for “stretch assignments,” where the probability of success isn’t a given, either for yourself or as developmental opportunities for team members.
- Don’t be defensive – Acknowledge your failures, perhaps from those stretch assignments, and capture the lessons you’ve learned from them. Frame mistakes and failures— either your own or those of team members — as learning opportunities and gather all the learning possible.
Learning agility is essential for leadership because it provides the ability for timely and solid decisions as the world changes around us. It provides confidence to team members, as they trust in leadership and follow the model displayed. As you and your team members improve your learning agility, your organization can become more adaptable and better able to respond to business volatility, therefore becoming more competitive in the face of unprecedented challenges.
Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.