How to Help Your Team (and Yourself) Be More Agile

Reposted with Permission From the October 10, 2016 IBM Social Business Spotlight Blog by Pamela Meyer

While major corporations such as AT&T are recognizing the need to create a more agile workforce1, most continue to rely on strategies designed for the mythical stable, knowable future. Whether you are leading or a member of a software development team, developing and executing your company’s sales and marketing strategy, or working in any number of high-stakes, rapidly changing contexts, you know that your success in the moment is likely not going to be based on the finer points of your strategic plan, or even the day’s to-do list. It is also nearly certain that when the unexpected hits, your success is not going to come from something you learned in business school or other formal training program.

Despite evidence that up to 90 percent of executive action is ad hoc2, most training programs and businesses are doing a dismal job preparing their workforce to be effective in an increasingly VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) environment. Two outdated approaches are impeding organizations’ ability to create a more agile workforce, and in turn—your ability to help yourself and your team be more agile:

1) Most business school and workplace learning approaches disproportionately focus on aspects of the business that (in theory) can be controlled, which leads to an overemphasis on planning and analysis, and role-specific skill and knowledge development.

2) Most approaches to workplace learning, whether delivered at the university or at the workplace itself, are based on the assumption that information shared and skills developed in the classroom (on-ground or virtual) will be readily transferred to the complex and uncertain environment of the workplace and world of business.

The problem with these assumptions is borne out by the disheartening 10 percent of learning transfer from training room to the workplace3. Why the low transfer rates? Most learning approaches do not take into account the level of complexity required to access and translate prior learning and apply it in new and often unfamiliar contexts, let alone create opportunities for learners to develop their agility competence, capacity and confidence.

Developing the Agile Team

If you truly want to develop your and your team’s overall agility, rather than teaching new skills and knowledge with the assumption they will be applied in a known, stable context, you must seek and provide opportunities to experience situations that demand adaptive responses. This means experiences where you and your team not only need to find and frame the issue or opportunity, but also to then generate novel approaches using available resources. I am not talking about canned training activities where you work to solve a pre-defined problem (solve a puzzle, build a tower, etc.), but ill-defined, high-stakes scenarios and activities with real or almost-real-life consequences.

Such activities, whether experienced in the safety of formal training or encountered on the job, also help team members develop their capacity for learning agility. In recent years researchers have identified learning agility as the single most critical success factor for long-term career success, as well as for organizational results. Defined variously as the ability to “learn and adapt in changing contexts,”4 and “the willingness and ability to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions,”5 learning agility is the key to success when things don’t go as planned and when new, unexpected opportunities arise. In other words, learning agility is the key to business success.

Learning-agile people and teams are better able to adapt when asked to switch roles, work in a new culture, expand the scope or complexity of their responsibilities, lead a new initiative, learn lessons from experience after a set-back and use them to guide their future success, and innovate with limited resources.

Critical Success Factors: Intentionality and Responsibility

When you make your own and your team’s agility your top priority, you must make opportunities to develop learning agility the core of your talent development and management strategies. This responsibility is not something to pass off to your HR department or Training and Development Team. In the agile organization, everyone is a learning leader. Those formally charged with people development in your organization, if you are lucky enough to have them, can be excellent partners for you, and ultimately, you are responsible for developing your own and your team’s agility capability.

In practice, this means being intentional in your agile practices and taking responsibility for your own learning, while encouraging your team members to do the same. Here are just a few best practices that companies I work with are adopting with excellent results:

  • Seek out and provide new and unfamiliar opportunities that require new learning, innovation and adaptation.
  • Practice high stakes “What, if . . .” scenarios that require your team to rapidly come up with alternative strategies and resources, in order to maintain business operations in the midst of a disruption or quickly capitalize on a new opportunity.
  • Intentionally expand, diversify and strengthen your Relational Web of skills, knowledge, talent and resources so that you have access to them when the unexpected happens.

Taking the time to be intentional and responsible for agility and to develop learning agility is well worth the investment. Studies show that adopting best practices such as these, as well as others borrowed from agile project teams, can increase your productivity as much as 38 percent.6 Even if you and your team realized a only fraction of these results, wouldn’t it be worth it?


1. Hardy, Q. (February 13, 2016) “Gearing Up for the Cloud, AT&T Tells Its Workers: Adapt, or Else.” New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/technology/gearing-up-for-the-cloud-att-tells-its-workers-adapt-or-else.html?_r=0
2. Mintzberg, H. (1973) The nature of managerial work. New York: Harper & Row.; Moorman, C., & Miner, A. S. (1998) The convergence of planning and execution: Improvisation in new product development. Journal of Marketing, 62(3), 1—20.
3. Brinkerhoff, R. O. (2005) The Success Case Method: A Strategic Evaluation Approach to Increasing the Value and Effect of Training. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 7(1), 86-101. doi:10.1177/1523422304272172
4. Mitchinson, A., & Morris, R. (2012) Learning about learning agility.
5. Lombardo, M. M., & Eichinger, R. W. (2000). High potentials as high learners. Human Resource Management, 39, 321-330.
6. Salesforce.com. (2010) White Paper: Transforming your organization to agile. Retrieved from https://developer.salesforce.com/page/Transforming_Your_Organization_to_Agile

Learning Agility: What? So What? And Now What?

In the 21st century we find ourselves in the midst of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty Complexity and Ambiguity). The term was originally coined by the United States Army War College to describe changing conditions on the battlefield. It is now widely used as the acronym for the reality of everyday life and work.

To be effective in changing contexts, we need to develop new capacities and competencies. Perhaps the most important of these is Learning Agility. In this short blog post, I will introduce the concept (What?), comment on its importance (So What?) and share a few ideas for how you can begin to develop your own and others Learning Agility (Now What?).

What?

Learning agility is the ability to learn and adapt in changing contexts (Mitchinson & Morris, 2012). In their study of more than 190 executives’ significant learning experiences, Management researchers McCall, Lombardo and Morrison (1988)identified the key to success within a complex organization: the ability to manage something new without having to master it first (p. 34). Learning agility is not simply the ability to think on your feet, it is the ability to access and apply lessons learned in one context to another.

So What?

It turns out that being competent, even excellent, in your current role is a weak predictor of your potential for success in a new, more challenging role. In fact, according to research published by the Corporate Leadership Council (2005), only 30% of an organization’s current high performers have the potential to rise to and succeed in broader, senior level, critical positions. A 2010 study by the Korn/Ferry Institute identified learning agility as the top ranking predictor of leadership success, while estimating that only 15% of the workforce is “highly learning agile” (De Meuse, Dai, & Hallenbeck). Perhaps most important for organizational leaders, learning agility is an essential component of organizational agility, which is proving to return significant bottom line benefits for those who make it a strategic priority (Glenn, 2009).

Now What?

Realizing that learning agility is essential to organizational success, managers and learning and development professionals are starting to make it a key strategic priority. Learning agility is not something easily acquired in a classroom, though formal learning that is particularly timely is more likely to be transferred into practice. A few steps you can take to maximize the value of formal training (for yourself and others) for learning agility include:

  • Think about your current work/life challenges and identify skills, knowledge and capacities that would help you be more effective.
  • Prior to formal learning experiences, identify your personal learning goals (these may differ from those described in the course materials). Ideally, share these goals with a colleague or supervisor before you participate in the formal learning.
  • Keep a learning log to make note of key insights and particularly relevant lessons, as well as questions and topics for future exploration.
  • Within a few days of the learning experience meet with your colleague or supervisor and share your learning and what progress you made toward your learning goals and discuss how you can implement/experiment with your new learning. If possible, create an opportunity to share your learning more broadly with colleagues via a brown bag lunch, company newsletter or blog post.
  • Experiment with putting your new learning into practice and reflect on your results.
  • Repeat.

We can all take more responsibility for seeking out new formal and informal learning opportunities that expand our skills and knowledge and increase our effectiveness in new roles and contexts. Not all learning opportunities are created equal. Research shows that learning experiences that have the most significant impact on learning agility are those that are “emotional, require risk-taking and have real-life consequences” (De Meuse, Dai, & Hallenbeck, 2010, p. 121). These can include:

  • Stretch assignments that challenge people to work outside of their comfort zone
  • New Leadership Roles, especially those that expand on the scope of prior experience
  • Living/working in a new culture
  • Reflecting on Lessons Learned from both Good and Bad Bosses
  • Mentoring/Coaching, to help people seek out new learning opportunities and mine those experiences for lessons learned

These are just a few places to start developing your own and others’ capacity for learning agility. As you think about your own work setting, consider ways in which you can take responsibility for your own learning and development, and help others do the same.

De Meuse, K. P., Dai, G., & Hallenbeck, G. S. (2010). Learning agility: A construct whose time has come. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2), 119-130.

Glenn, M. (2009). Organisational agility: How business can survive and thrive in turbulent times: Economist Intelligence Unit.

McCall, M. W., Lombardo, M. M., & Morrison, A. M. (1988). Lessons of experience: How successful executives develop on the job. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Realizing the full potential of rising talent. (2005). Washington, DC: Corporate Executive Board: Corporate Leadership Council.