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.

Four Keys to Creating an Agile Organization

Just because you can hit a tennis ball, doesn’t mean you can win a game.

Pamela Meyer Agility Expert

Many of us weekend warriors know that our brilliant rallies with the backboard, don’t always translate to a stunning performance on the court. The same is true in our organizations; having the skills and knowledge (competence) for agility does not necessarily mean that you and your organization have the ability to put it into action in the midst of volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) situations (Stiehm and Townsend, 2002).

For an organization to be truly agile it must develop the capacity at all levels of the system to enhance and sustain agility. Leaders can assess their systems, processes and frameworks for their current capacity for agility, and enhance them for maximum responsiveness. Here are a few places to start, along with some provocative questions to ask:

  1. Systems and processes to convene a team of experts to respond effectively to an unexpected event or opportunity. Does your organization have a strategy to use existing technology to easily search for and assemble people based on their expertise and experience?
  2. Systems and processes that enable agile communication and collaboration. Do you have the capability to swiftly communicate with the right stakeholders in the midst of a fluid situation and/or high priority collaboration
  3. Frameworks to quickly develop new products and services (Rapid prototyping). Do your employees across job functions and business units know where to take a new product or service idea and how to move it smoothly from inception to execution? Does your organization have the capacity to rapidly prototype a new product or service in response to an emerging need or opportunity?
  4. Streamlined organizational structure and decision-making processes. Research shows that organizations that have minimal structure necessary for their specific business are more able to improvise (Moorman & Miner, 1998). Does your organizational structure and decision-making process enhance or impede agility?

With systems and processes that enable rather than impede responsiveness, organizations have a foundation for agility. This “agile infrastructure” alone will not insure individuals, teams and the entire organizational system is agile, only that the infrastructure will not be part of the problem. Organizations that are confident that all of their employees can and will respond effectively to the unexpected and unplanned also invest in developing, reinforcing and rewarding individual and team capacity to improvise to meet the changing needs of the business and its customers.

 

Moorman, C., & Miner, A. S. (1998). Organizational improvisation and organizational memory. Academy of Management Review, 23(4), 698-723.

Stiehm, Judith Hicks, & Townsend, Nicholas W. (2002). The U.S. Army War College: Military education in a democracy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

 

This post by Pamela Meyer originally appeared on meyercreativity.com/blog 

Three Lessons from (and for) Agile Teams

Three Lessons from (and for) Agile Teams

or

“If you want to understand organizations, study something else,” Karl Weick

SWAT Team_dreamstime_xs_18800265

 

An agile team is one that can learn, adapt and innovate in the midst of change, using available resources.

There is compelling research to support the business case for making agility a strategic organizational priority. A study of 649 firms by MIT’s Sloan Center for Systems Research found that agile firms grow revenue 37% faster and generated up to 30% more earnings per share (Business agility and IT portfolios, 2006). The reasons for increasing agility are clear, but most leaders are less clear on how to enhance agility in their own organizations.
Lessons learned from successful agile teams in high stress, high risk circumstances, such as SWAT teams, film crews (Bechky & Okhuysen, 2011) and fire fighters (Weick, 1993) show us that agile groups and organizations have both the required competence and capacity for:

 

Continuous Learning

The ability to quickly become aware of, assess (and often re-assess) new information in real time and regroup (including the capacity to drop prior plans, agendas and preconceptions as they become obsolete) and respond to the situation at hand is essential to agile teams.

Fluid Communication

Agile organizationFilm Crew_dreamstime_xs_25247256s have open channels of communication across job functions and levels of authority. Critical new information can emerge at any level of the system at any time and those who receive or perceive the data must be have the confidence and competence to share it with the appropriate stakeholder.

Context

I have written extensively about the value of playspace (2010) in creating space for innovating, learning and changing. Playspace is the serious business of creating the context where people are free to play with new ideas, play new roles, create more play in the system and engage in improvised play to be effective in any situation. This is not the funny hats and games type of playspace; it is about creating a context where people do not feel constrained to respond in the moment to an urgent customer or business need because it is not in their job description.

Agile organizations require leaders who understand that agility is a key competitive advantage and who align their learning, development and business practices to develop and sustain. Lessons from high-risk teams can inspire us to action. Sometimes it is helpful to raise the stakes by conducting a thought experiment and ask ourselves, “What if our lives depended on our organization’s ability to be agile?” When we raise the stakes, we often discover capacities we didn’t know we had.

 

Bechky, B. A., & Okhuysen, G. (2011). Expecting the unexpected? How SWAT officers and film crews handle surprises. Academy of Management Journal, 54(2), 239-261.

Business agility and IT portfolios. (2006). Cambridge, MA: MIT Sloan School of Management, Sloan Center for Systems Research.

Meyer, P. (2010). From workplace to playspace: Innovating, learning and changing through dynamic engagement. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Weick, K. E. (1993). The collapse of sensemaking: The Mann Gulch disaster. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38(4), 628-652.

 

This post by Pamela Meyer originally appeared on meyercreativity.com/blog