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.

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 

What Enables Organizations to be Agile?

Agility is perhaps the most essential capacity for organizations today. A recent study by MIT showed that agile organizations grow revenue 37% faster and are 30% more profitable than non-agile companies (Glenn, 2009).

The two most salient factors influencing organizational agility, according to a comprehensive review of research done in the field (Bottani, 2010) are:

1.    Employees role and competency in the company

2.    Technology: Virtual enterprise tools and metrics and the adoption of information technology systems

What does this mean for your learning and development strategies?

Confidence and Competence Development.  Every organization must have an explicit strategy to help individuals, workgroups and entire divisions develop the capacity to effectively improvise in response to the unexpected and unplanned, as well as to spot and respond to emerging opportunities and trends. This involves more than improving communication and resource sharing, though these are also key. It means providing significant experiential learning opportunities for individuals and groups across sectors to develop their competence and confidence in thinking on their feet, acting in the moment and effectively drawing on all available resources—human, material, technological and intuitive.

Technology Infrastructure. Agility also demands that all organizational participants have the tools and resources to quickly access the organization’s knowledge network and relationships. A simple knowledge management system is no longer sufficient for agility; individuals need to be able to quickly access the people and capacity of the organization, not simply search decontextualized bits of data.

Research also shows that people need more than just awareness and access to their knowledge networks; they need relational connections and context to effectively use the network (Cross and Parker, 2004). Learning and development approaches that combine the development of social capital, along with awareness of and access to the wisdom and experience of the network are thriving. Creating a technology infrastructure that provides the stability and flexibility for responding to emerging opportunities, along with enhanced confidence and competence in improvisation is an unbeatable strategy for creating the agile organization.

What strategies are you using to enhance agility in your organization?

Bottani, E. (2010). Profile and enablers of agile companies: An empirical investigation. International Journal of Production Economics, 125, 251-261.

Cross, R., & Parker, A. (2004). The hidden power of social networks: Understanding how work really gets done in organizations. Cambridge: Harvard Business School.

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

Creating the Agile Organization: Learning to Play Within the Givens

Sitting in the audience during any long-form improvised theatrical performance the importance of memory becomes readily apparent. One of the best-known long-form improvisations, “The Harold,” was developed by Del Close (Halpern, Close, & Johnson, 1994) and is performed several nights a week at Chicago’s IO (formerly Improv Olympic). Based on a single suggestion from the audience the players begin to “jam” together as they explore the interesting dimensions and associations with the suggestion. This jam session may start with a motion, sound, phrase, exclamation or any number of responses. As the players accept and explore these discoveries soon the first scene and characters emerge, and the players not directly involved on-stage retreat to the sidelines as intent participant-observers to the unfolding action.

 

Collectively, the players must hold both the original “given” (the audience suggestion) and all of the discoveries that emerge from that given. Their challenge is to use this organizational memory to fuel their discoveries, improvised characters and action over the next forty-five or so minutes. If their relationship to this memory is overly procedural (tied to successful bits and characters from past performances), they will not be able to continue to unfold the action and mine the givens for increasingly surprising discoveries, but fall into recursive routines enacting the original assumptions and one-dimensional dynamics.
Organizations are similarly challenged as others (Moorman & Miner, 1998a; Vera & Crossan, 2004) have described, impeded in their ability to improvise when they are overly tied to routines and procedures. However, memory of past routines and approaches can be useful raw material for a novel response to the unexpected (Moorman & Miner, 1998b).
Memory of the “givens” in improvisation, the original inspiration, the organizational vision, the boundaries of available resources, and ready access to various dimensions of knowledge (representational, reflective, and relational), as well as past organizational routines and effective responses are all dependent on a present moment lived experience that includes a relationship to the past and (in the case of vision and goals) the imagined future. This capacity is highly valued on the improv stage. Recently I brought a group of students to a performance at Chicago’s IO. During the post-show discussion a student asked the improvisers, “What quality or competence do you think makes someone a great improviser?” One of the seasoned players responded, “A high point of reference. By that I mean, someone who is well read, is up on current events and popular culture and can draw on any of it at just the right moment. That makes for a very rich improvisation.”
For improvisers both in the theater an organizational settings memory itself does not impede successful improvisation, but the individual’s  relationship to memory and the context (and culture) within which the improvisation is occurring. In other words, memory of the “way we’ve always done things” can be either a limiting routine, or (with “Yes, and…”) a springboard to a novel response.
Balancing Creativity and Constraint
When you think about the givens that you must play within in your organization or work, what systems, process and strategies do you use to help you maintain a lively relationship to them?
Halpern, C., Close, D., & Johnson, K. H. (1994). Truth in comedy: The manual of improvisation. Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether.
Moorman, C., & Miner, A. S. (1998a). Organizational improvisation and organizational memory. Academy of Management Review, 23(4), 698-723.
Moorman, C., & Miner, A. S. (1998b). The convergence of planning and execution: Improvisation in new product development. Journal of Marketing, 62(3), 1—20.
Vera, D. M., & Crossan, M. (2004). Theatrical Improvisation: Lessons for organizations. Organizational Studies, 25(5), 727-749.

The Positive Principle: Building Your Capacity for Improvisation and Appreciative Inquiry

The Positive Principle(D. L. Cooperrider, Sorensen, Whitney, & Yaeger, 2000: 20) is a central and guiding principle of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), as well as its theoretical foundation [NOTE: For fuller introduction, download Organizational Improvisation & Appreciative Inquiry:] Not based in deficit thinking, rabid searches for “problems” or organizational challenges, AI looks for “that which gives life to the organization.” For legions of executives and MBA graduates this is indeed a radical, even heretical concept. Many business people build their credibility and careers on their ability to identify and solve problems. Even I, as I was starting my consulting practice, was counseled to identify “the problem to which I was the answer.”

My experience bears out this ingrained “problem focus.” Working with clients and students using the AI process, I have noticed how often they are tempted to shift into “problem-solving” mode, or to ask deficit-focused questions once the appreciative inquiry is underway. Here, additional competence in the practice of principles of improvisation can help AI participants leverage the positive, forward movement of the inquiry toward its positive potential.

AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential (Cooperrider, Sorensen et al. 2000: 5).

Improvisation, like AI, is founded on a positive principle—the principle of Say, “Yes, and . . .” (Meyer, 2000: 63). Improvisers must accept (or say, “yes”) to anything they discover on stage, receive from another player or the audience. They cannot stop at acceptance, however, they must move the action forward by adding their own discoveries (saying, “and . . .”). This positive orientation is the foundation for improvisation success, as it is for all creative collaborations in business and life.

The conceptual framework of AI is most often translated into practice as the 4-D process (D. Cooperrider & Whitney, 2000; Hammond, 1998; Watkins & Mohr, 2001). AI, not only supports positive organizational change, but helps individuals build some of the skills necessary for successful improvisation in the workplace. The practice of AI also contributes to organizational memory via storytelling and while giving individuals opportunities to cultivate their improvisation competencies and foster a culture where improvisation is more likely to be successful. Additionally, the inquiry process is grounded in the lived experiences of organizational participants. To discover the positive core of these experiences, AI participants must listen closely and without judgment—essential competencies for improvisation.

At the center of the “4-D Process” of AI is inquiry into personal positive experiences related to the topic. Concert pianist and consultant, Michael Jones writes Creativity involves living in the question—Improvising involves a living inquiry into what is. When our conditioned knowledge and theories no longer serve us, we need to inquire more deeply into things as they are. This creates a space for more subtle insights to emerge (1997: 60).

An inquiry of quality and depth, grounded in individual experience also promotes organizational learning as framed by Crossan, Lane and White (1996) as including intuition, as well as interpreting, integrating and institutionalizing new discoveries. Individual learning, within this framework, includes changes in cognition and/or behavior. Integrated learning represents a change in both cognition and behavior. An inquiry that invites participants to share their experiences and make (sometimes new) meaning of them, then, may enhance this integration process while building individual experience, comfort and capacity to “live in the question” and improvise.

Cooperrider, D., & Whitney, D. (2000). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative inquiry. In D. L. S. Cooperrider, Jr., Peter F.; Whitney, Diana; Yaeger, Therese (Ed.), Appreciative inquiry (pp. 3-27). Champaigne, IL: Stipes. Cooperrider, D. L., Sorensen, J., Peter F., Whitney, D., & Yaeger, T. (Eds.). (2000). Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking human organization toward a positive theory of change. Champaign, IL: Stipes. Crossan, M., Lane, H. W., & White, R. E. (1996). Organizational learning: Toward a unifying framework.Unpublished manuscript, London, Ontario. Hammond, S. A. (1998). The thin book of appreciative inquiry (2nd ed.). Plano, TX: Thin Book Publishing. Jones, M. (1997). Getting creativity back into corporate decision making. Journal for Quality & Participation, 20(1), 58-62. Meyer, P. (2000). Quantum Creativity: Nine principles to transform the way you work. Chicago: Contemporary Books. Watkins, J. M., & Mohr, B. J. (2001). Appreciative inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Five Ways to Make Space for People to Play with New Ideas and Perspectives

As often as I balk at prescriptive approaches to creating playspace, I am asked for examples of how others are doing it in their organizations. Below is a short list of innovative approaches from a wide range of organizations. Some are from “From Workplace to Playspace,” others I have heard from workshop participants and readers around the country. I hope that you will be inspired and “get permission” from them to experiment with approaches that fit for your organization.

1) Warm-up Your Day. Umpqua Bank, a thriving regional community bank, featured in the book, begins every day across its more than 175 locations with something CEO, Ray Davis calls a “Motivational Moment.” Every single employee gathers in the lobby at each location to join in a group activity to boost their energy and enthusiasm for the day. Anyone can lead the session, and the only guidelines are that it cannot be political or religious in nature. This means that Umpqua associates start their day singing, dancing, improvising, playing games such as Marshmallow Dodge Ball and generally building the camaraderie, good will and focus that has landed them on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list the last four years in a row.

2) Warm-up Your Meeting. Research shows that people are more creative if they engage in some sort of light-hearted creative activity before they take on a new challenge (Conti, Amabile, & Pollack, 1995). Anything from 60 seconds of Be. Here. Now. time (see demonstration video) to engaging in a brainstorm about how to solve some seemingly impossible challenge (e.g. How can we eliminate world hunger? How can we become a totally paperless office? How can we use migrating birds to deliver our communications?), the more outlandish, silly and/or impossible the challenge, the better.

3) Argue a Different Point of View. Skilled debate teams regularly switch sides to become more adept at their craft. You can build your team’s critical thinking skills in a similar way. If you see a passionate debate come to a deadlock, ask the key proponents from each side to argue for another option. Ask others to list the pros and cons as they emerge. This is also an effective strategy if everyone seems to be getting cozy with one point of view. Step back and ask people to argue for the opposite view, or for a point of view that is not represented in the room (e.g. Play the role of the front-line worker, customer, student, child, non-English-speaking immigrant, senior citizen). What new possibilities emerge when you consider the other side? Are there ways to take these concerns into consideration?

4) Play. There are endless lists of games and contests that can bring more play (as in flexibility) in the system, levity, build relationships and open up more space for possibilities. Some of my favorites include Google’s “Pimp My Cubicle” Contest, and various guessing contests, such as those inviting employees to match baby pictures, hobbies, or pet photos with their owners. These have significant value in getting people to connect outside of their formal roles and responsibilities, which goes a long way in building relationships and social capital—that enhance collaboration and resource sharing.

5) Say, “Yes, and . . .” Anyone who has taken a basic improv class (or attended one of my playspace sessions) knows that “Yes, and . . .” is the secret to successful collaboration and idea generation. It is also key to making space for more possibilities. It simply means that we replace the word “but” with the word “and” and look for every opportunity to build on our colleagues’ ideas. Saying “yes” does not mean we are going to implement every idea, simply that we are willing to explore its possibilities. Most innovative solutions began as crazy impractical ideas that benefited from some generous “yes, and-ing.” Take it for a test drive and let me know how it worked for you!

This list is just a start. Please post your ideas for making more space for the play of new ideas and perspectives in the comment section below!

— Conti, R., Amabile, T. M., & Pollack, S. (1995). The positive impact of creative activity: Effects of creative task engagement and motivational focus on college students’ learning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 1107–1116.

Follow the Energy

One of the consistent themes I have seen in everything from improvised scenes on stage to creative collaboration sessions and entire organizations is that when people follow the energy of what is most compelling and engaging they are more successful. Appreciative Inquiry is based on the principle that in every human system something works, and if we tap into the energy of what is working we will likely tap into what people care about and their generative capacity to create positive futures. Just as plants grow toward the sunlight so, too, do human systems grow toward their generative core. This does not mean that we ignore obvious problems, or put on rose colored glasses that only reveal the positive. It means that we use the generative energy of what drives us to co-create new and better possibilities.

In an improvised scene generativity is fostered by the practice of saying, “Yes, and . . .” or accepting a fellow players idea (or “offer”) and building on it with something that heightens and explores what is most interesting. In creative collaboration, it plays out similarly when people come together to generate new possibilities by building on each idea, rather than finding every flow, and in organizational systems it means following the people, processes and products that are generating most interest and attention, as well as revenue. In our personal and professional lives, it also means not laboring over relationships and projects that simply are not coming to life, or life-giving. I regularly have opportunities to relearn this lesson, and each time I have discovered that when I move on from a situation that is no longer generative, it frees up additional energy and resources for even more fruitful possibilities.

For more on the relationship between improvisation and appreciate inquiry, see my article at http://www.meyercreativity.com/articles/.

Purposeful Play

One of the common misconception about play is that it is necessarily purposeless, and therefore can’t possibly have any place in business. Harvard scholar and jazz pianist (and mentor) Frank Barrett calls improvised play a form of “disciplined imagination” reminding us that play can also be wildly productive and innovative.

What does purposeful play require?

Naming the Purpose: Whether the purpose is to play a game, energize a team, or create space to generate new product ideas, naming the purpose of the play is essential for engaging and aligning the passion and energy of all collaborators.

Making Space for the Play of New Ideas: This means valuing the space and its necessity for ideas to play within it enough to: Not check email, answer the phone, and engage in distractions, as well as fostering the relational, generative, safe, timeful and provocative dynamics necessary for engaged creative collaboration.

The Discipline of Playing Time: Star athletes and breakout artists mature their talent by dedicating hours and hours of playing time—not now and then, but routinely, with dedication and commitment that values both the process and product of their play.

Curiosity: Approaching the playing space with an attitude of inquiry, rather than a singular focus on perfection. Playspace is space for experimentation and exploration. People who play with purpose are always looking for a better, more interesting, and innovative way.

Persistence and Perseverance: People who are fully engaged are much more likely to persevere through the inevitable twists and turns of innovating, learning and changing. Returning to the essential core that sparked your passion for playing in the first place can regenerate the motivation and commitment to forge ahead and engage the discipline that allows the imagination to flow again.

Purposeful play transcends the work-play dualism that leads many to dismiss play as inappropriate for serious endeavors. What could be more serious for business than a commitment to making space for innovating, learning and changing?