Become An Agile Leader: Do What Scares You

Do what scares you

After a busy fall helping leaders become more agile in organizations here and abroad, I am waxing my skis and getting ready to head to ski racing camp in Colorado later this week.

This will be my fifth year in a row. I blocked the dates and sent in my deposit as soon as camp was announced—not because it is comfortable or even fun, at times it is, but the real reason I started going and continue go is that it scares me.

Followers of my sporadic blog posts know that I returned to ski racing, a somewhat delusional passion from my Iowa youth (I seriously thought I could be a contender!), after a birthday that ended in “0”. I skied every chance I could as a teenager—park district bus trip to Wisconsin (I’m on it!), University of Iowa ski trip to Colorado that they foolishly opened up to area high school kids (I’m in!), weekend trips with my parents to Midwest resorts and the occasional Colorado ski vacation (I planned the rest of my life around them!).

The Racing Bug

Somewhere along the way, I got bit by the racing bug and also starting racing in as many USSA Central division races as I could get to, which included road trips to Minneapolis to race at Buck Hill, long before Lindsay Vonn, who got her start there, was born!

Coming back to skiing and ski racing when most of my friends have long since hung up their long underwear has taken a lot more commitment. When I was younger, it was easy to round up a group of adventurers willing to give it a go—many clad in their Iowa overalls.

Become an agile leader

The Author, Pamela Meyer

These days, it is much harder for me to find friends who want to head down the hill on two waxed planks, let alone into the cold. It was this challenge that led me to explore more organized ski activities, including racing clubs and camps.

With a great recommendation from a friend and former ski instructor, I found my way to Dave Gregory’s Peak Performance Ski Camp that he holds each November at Copper Mountain and summers at Mount Hood, Oregon.

Now, as I pack up for my fifth trip, I have a little better idea of what to expect, and yet, the apprehension has not completely lifted. Did I train well enough? You can never be too fit for racing. Will I crash? No question. Will I get hurt? It’s happened and is always a possibility. I still go because it still stretches me. It still scares me—not in a “why again am I jumping out of this airplane?” way—but in a way that pushes me out of my comfort zone, physically, socially, mentally.

Accepting the Challenge

Some years it takes, even more, commitment and intentionality. Two years ago, I had major surgery over the summer and had to make a concerted effort to recover, rebuild my strength and confidence. Last year, I fractured my shoulder on a training run. These experiences don’t deter me or my fellow masters racers. They do give me even greater respect for athletes such as Lindsay Vonn who had countless setbacks in their careers and yet came back, again and again. They make the effort and put in the work to return to peak performance, even when they have every invitation to use the latest injury to make a graceful exit from the competition (which Vonn, of course, did this past season).

My experience in life and especially these last few years, helping leaders, teams and organizations become more agile is that doing what scares you is where the learning is.

New learning, and especially the confidence to apply that learning under pressure, doesn’t happen by staying in our comfort zone. It doesn’t happen if are afraid of looking silly, incompetent and like we don’t know what we are doing. As uncomfortable as these experiences are, they are the hallmarks that learning (or at least the potential for learning) is happening. Agile leaders not only seek out new experiences that stretch their current skills and abilities, but they also model their learning and share the process of becoming more confident with others. This, admittedly, takes some courage and a certain amount of psychological safety. In fact, it took me some time to muster this courage the first year I registered for racing camp.

Becoming Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

agile leadership

The biggest lesson I have learned as I pack up for camp #5 is that being a little (and sometimes a lot) out of my comfort zone is where the growth and where new confidence is built. One of our race coaches says, “If you never crash, you aren’t trying something new. You aren’t learning!”

I realized I can’t very well travel the world talking about The Agility Shift and helping leaders be more effective in the midst of the unknown if I am not challenging myself to do the same. And leaders at all levels of the organization cannot very well ask others to take risks and continue stretching, growing and adapting to changes if they are not willing to do so themselves.

So, as we move into the holiday season, which is often associated with cocooning, being cozy with friends and family (which is a wonderful way to recharge our spirits), I invite you to also look for the opportunities that lie ahead that scare you. It doesn’t have to be ski racing or even a physical challenge. Maybe it is just accepting an unexpected invitation before you start over-thinking it, go ahead and say, “yes!” sign up, and jump in. Maybe I’ll see you there!

What are you doing/might you do that scares you?

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NOTE: This post is a revision of a 2017 post, updated with gratitude to be healthy and able to get out there for another season.

 

Are You Training for Airmanship (AKA Learning Agility)?

The ability to effectively frame and solve problems in the cockpit in a high stakes, rapidly unfolding situation is called “airmanship.” In leadership development, we call this learning agility.

Learning Agility in Action

With the first anniversary of the tragic Boeing 737 Max crash of Lion Air Flight 610 followed months later by Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 upon us, there is a new wave of coverage in the news. As families continue to demand answers and accountability and outside entities work to understand what went wrong, another line of inquiry is being explored that has implications for anyone who works in high-stakes environments.

While not the ultimate source of the disasters, some, such as journalist and former commercial airline pilot, William Langewiesche, question whether or not the pilots’ training prepared them to be effective in complex high stakes situations (2019).

I have written about another key aspect of Cockpit Resource Management (CRM), the ability to communicate, collaborate and coordinate in the heat of the moment in The Agility Shift.

Also key is the ability to effectively frame and solve problems in the cockpit in a rapidly unfolding situation or “airmanship” (applied equally to men and women).

What is “Airmanship”?

Its full meaning is difficult to convey. It includes a visceral sense of navigation, an operational understanding of weather and weather information, the ability to form mental maps of traffic flows, fluency in the nuance of radio communications and, especially, a deep appreciation for the interplay between energy, inertia and wings. Airplanes are living things. The best pilots do not sit in cockpits so much as strap them on (Langewiesche, 2019).

A recent analysis by the New York Times of available flight data and cockpit recordings of these doomed flights provide some evidence that the crews of both doomed flights may not have had, or were not able to access their capacity for “airmanship” when the stakes were highest. Langewiesche sounds an alarm for the flying public.

. . .  it is certain that thousands of similar crews are at work around the world, enduring as rote pilots and apparently safe, but only so long as conditions are routine (2019).

Many fields have variations on the term “airmanship.” For example, miners who have an intuitive connection to the state of a mine, and potential threats to their safety are said to have “pit sense.” (Kamouche, K. and Maguire, K., 2010) while Aboagye-Nimo, E and Raiden, A (2016) use the broader term “site-sense” to include any variety of settings in which the ability to access and apply tacit knowledge is essential to success.

For those of us working in or with organizations, the stakes may not always be life and death, but they are often urgent and high. To stay competitive leaders at all levels of the organization must be able to respond quickly and effectively to a wide range of unexpected events and information; they must be able to make decisions in the midst of uncertainty, and they must be able to rapidly make sense of complex and volatile situations. In short, they need to develop “airmanship.”

Airmanship Requires Learning Agility

At its most essential, airmanship and site-sense share the same underlying competence: the ability to learn and adapt in changing contexts. In leadership development, we refer to this competency as learning agility. In their study of more than 190 executives’ significant learning experiences, management researchers identified the key to success within a complex organization: the ability to manage something new without having to master it first (McCall, Lombardo and Morrison, 1988). Learning agility is not simply the ability to think on your feet, it is the ability to apply lessons learned in one context to another, often more complex, one situation.

The good news is that it is possible to develop learning agility, though it doesn’t happen without concerted and intentional effort.

How the United States Navy Uses Learning Agility to Instruct Fighter Pilots

The United States Navy manages to instill a sense of this in its fledgling fighter pilots by ramming them through rigorous classroom instruction and then requiring them to fly at bank angles without limits, including upside down. The same cannot be expected of airline pilots who never fly solo and whose entire experience consists of catering to passengers who flinch in mild turbulence, refer to “air pockets” in cocktail conversation and think they are near death if bank angles exceed 30 degrees. The problem exists for many American and European pilots, too. Unless they make extraordinary efforts — for instance, going out to fly aerobatics, fly sailplanes or wander among the airstrips of backcountry Idaho — they may never develop true airmanship no matter the length of their careers (Langewiesche, 2019).

Training to Develop Learning Agility

Over the past several years working with a wide range of organizations to help them make the agility shift and build more adaptable teams and organizations, we have found a number of effective strategies to help leaders across the enterprise develop their learning agility competence, capacity, and confidence.

Each of the following can be integrated into formal or informal learning programs, as well as be used in coaching and mentoring for learning agility:

  1. Seek and provide learning experiences that call for adaptation. Even if you are learning a new skill, it is important to build enough confidence that you can apply that skill in a variety of situations (high stakes, uncertainty, missing or changing information, etc.). In formal training, be sure to design into your program learning activities that have some complexity and not a single right answer. If you, yourself, are the learner or are mentoring others, be sure to seek out and encourage your mentees to look for these opportunities in their roles.
  2. Experiment with scenario-based learning that requires that you/your learners communicate, collaborate, and coordinate with their Relational Web of skills, knowledge, talent, and resources. We regularly design experiential learning opportunities like this for teams to develop these capacities. You can also use these learning strategies as ‘thought-experiments” for individual and team reflection and idea generation.
  3. Become a Cognitive Apprentice. Coaching and mentoring are excellent ways to learn a new role, build confidence and self-awareness, and progress toward a host of personal and professional goals. Sometimes overlooked in coaching and other informal learning strategies is the value of understanding an expert’s way of framing problems and opportunities and determining a course of action. This modeling process is sometimes called a cognitive apprenticeship (Woolley, Norman N.; Jarvis, Yvonne, 2007). Learn to ask and help your learners probe for the thinking process that led to key decisions. Sometimes it can be as simple as asking questions like: “How did you zero in on __________ as the key issue?” or “How did you come to that decision?” Listen to the responses and for how experts question their own assumptions and process complex or competing narratives.
  4. Do what scares you. Perhaps the best way for you to develop their competence, capacity, and confidence is to seek new opportunities outside of your comfort zone intentionally. The more comfortable you (and your learners) can become in uncomfortable, even scary, situations, the more likely you will be able to think and function clearly when the stakes are high.

Understanding How Learning Agility can Serve us in a Crisis

No one is suggesting that developing airmanship or learning agility vindicates what appears to have been serious flaws in oversight and design of the Boeing 737 Max. However, these and other high stakes incidents remind us that at the center of every operational crisis, are human beings who must quickly assess the situation and tap their available resources to respond as quickly and effectively as possible.

While we cannot control or train for every possible situation, we can be more intentional training for airmanship and developing our own and other’s learning agility.

What other strategies do you use to develop your own and others’ learning agility?  

Discover more approaches for learning agility, and other customizable talent development solutions to make your agility shift!

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Aboagye-Nimo, E and Raiden, A (2016) Introducing Site Sense: Comparing Situated Knowledge in Construction to Coalmining. In: P W Chan and C J Neilson (Eds.) Proceedings of the 32nd Annual ARCOM Conference, 5-7 September 2016, Manchester, UK, Association of Researchers in Construction Management, Vol 1, 467-476.

Kamoche, K. and Maguire, K., 2011. Pit sense: Appropriation of practice-based knowledge in a UK coal mine. Human Relations, 64 (5), pp. 725-744.

Langewiesche, W. (2019, September 21, 2019). What really brought down the Boeing 737 Max? New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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

Meyer, P. (2015). The Agility Shift: Creating agile and effective leaders, teams and organizations. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Woolley, Norman N.; Jarvis, Yvonne (January 2007). “Situated cognition and cognitive apprenticeship: A model for teaching and learning clinical skills in a technologically rich and authentic learning environment”. Nurse Education Today. 27 (1): 73–79.

 

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

Be More Agile in 2016

As we embark on a shiny new year, many of us are resolving to be more of the people we know we can be and bring more of our best selves to our families, friends, communities and organizations. While the studies show a steep drop off in resolution success after the first week, and even more so after the first month, there is still value in taking the time to set new and aspirational goals.

One to the biggest values, in this annual ritual is that it is an invitation to take some time out to reflect on the year that was and notice when we felt most engaged, effective and fulfilled. These prompt questions may get you started:

• What were you doing during your peak experiences?
• How did you set yourself up for success? What support did you tap?
• How did you persevere through obstacles?
• How did you celebrate your successes and share the glory with others?
• And perhaps most important, what lessons did you learn that can guide your success in the year ahead?

If being more agile is one of your goals for the coming year, here are a few lessons from my own recent experience and reflections:

Be Intentional: Your best chance of success comes with making a conscious commitment to the practices that support agility. I outline many of these practices in my book, and find that I need to recommit to them myself each day. One of my coaches at a recent ski racing camp I participated in this fall regularly reminded us to set an intention or goal each time through the race course. The intention could be something we wanted to work on, do differently Julia Mancusoor experiment with. I noticed that this level of intentionality made a huge difference in my progress. The same carries over into our life and work practices. Set a new intention for agility as you walk into your next client meeting, idea generation session or learning experience, and see how much more effective you are.

Make a Mindset Shift (again and again): Agility is not simply a set of practices. These will have little sustained impact without first, second and last making the mindset shift to be open to new perspectives and learning for responsive action. This shift includes embracing your current context as fluid and preparing to be effective in the midst of change, rather than planning for the mythical stable future.

Cate cycling through Vietnam

Cate cycling through Vietnam

Seek out New Experiences and Perspectives. The best way to keep your resolution to be more agile this year is to leave your comfort zone and intentionally put yourself in new and unfamiliar situations that call on you to do, think and see things differently. This might be as big as traveling solo to an unfamiliar land, as my friend Cate Creede did (and beautifully described) recently. It could mean seeking out a stretch assignment, or new responsibility, or developing a new skill, language or perspective.

Notice. As you enjoy on your new, more agile year, you will gain the most from it, by noticing what you are experiencing as you experience it. When are you at your best? What new capacities and competencies are you developing? How is your confidence growing to think on your feet and tap your past experience in new and unfamiliar contexts? You might choose to jot your notes in an old fashioned notebook, like the one I kept during my racing camp, or use any number of apps, such as Evernote to record your insights on the fly.

Assess. One of the best ways to ensure your reflection leads to new insights and action, is to be thorough in assessing your agility in relation to your current context. To help people who are committed to making THE AGILITY SHIFT I developed the AGILITY SHIFT INVENTORY (ASI). I invite you to take it today (it is complimentary and only takes about 5 minutes) and receive a free Agility Shift Conversation and Catalyst Guide along with your results.

These are just a few suggestions to get you started. I will share more lessons learned and suggestions in future posts and encourage you to share your experiences, trials, tribulations and insights here, as well.

Here’s to your agile New Year!

Giving (and Receiving) the Gift of Agility

This holiday season as you begin to transition from the year that is wrapping up to the shiny new one that is about to begin, you will likely be making time for celebration. Hopefully you are also making some time for reflection, regrouping, restoration and re-energizing.

In the spirit of the season and all of the above activities, I offer you a few gifts you may want to consider giving to yourself and others. Each will go a long way in helping you and your friends, colleagues and loved ones stay agile and energized in your life and work:

  • Give the gift of a new experience or adventure. It might be as simple as a membership to the local art museum, botanical garden, experimental theater company
  • Or as grand as a hot air balloon ride, cross-cultural travel, or an outdoor adventure

Give the Gift of Adventure

  • Write a note of appreciation highlighting the ways your colleagues responded to the unexpected and unplanned or turned a challenge into an opportunity.

Give the Gift of Appreciation

  • Give the gift of an invitation to participate in a new volunteer experience that is aligned with your shared values

Give the Gift of a Volunteering

  • Give the gift of self care: a spa treatment, 10-pack yoga class card, gym membership

 

Give the Gift of Self Care

  • Give the gift of time and resources to:
    • join or form a community of practice
    • attend a conference or professional development opportunity
    • develop a new idea, business relationship, product or service prototype

 

These are just a few ideas to get your creative wheels turning. However you choose to celebrate and co-create the season and the year ahead, remember like fitness, your ability to stay agile and engaged requires the gift of your continuous and generous attention.

Visibility is Overrated

Top of Excelerator Lift, Copper Mountain

Top of Excelerator Lift, Copper Mountain

This past week I had a new adventure as a first-time participant in the Peak Performance Ski Racing Camp run by top international coach Dave Gregory at Copper Mountain, Colorado. I’ll share the story of how and why I came back to ski racing in mid-life another time, but did not want to delay sharing a few of the cross-over lessons that stood out most as I get back to my life in Chicago.

Not surprisingly, with my attention laser focused on all things agility at the moment, skiing in general, and ski racing in particular, are proving to be a rich field (slope?) for new metaphors and fresh perspectives.

The skiing conditions during the first few weeks of November can be iffy in the mountains. Some years there is barely enough snow to open a few runs (and even then with liberal dustings of artificial snow). This year, aided by El Nino, we had several dumps of fresh snow—not the gentle atmospheric snow, but the piercing, side-ways blowing snow that makes you feel like you have landed on another planet when you get off the lift at the top.

 

Visibility is Overrated

As we camp participants gathered at the top of our Giant Slalom course a few days into the camp, a dense gust of falling snow swirled around us, obscuring all but the first gate or two of the course. One of Dave’s coaches, Shawn Smith, heartily called out “Visibility is overrated!” and without allowing for a shred of complaint or resistance, shifted to giving us each just the counsel we needed to focus our next run through the gates: “widen your stance,” “quiet upper body,” “steeper edge angles at the top of the turn,” “activate your ankles” and/or “get your legs out from under you.”

When it was my turn to slide into the makeshift starting gate, I realized the lack of visibility might actually be a gift. Of course, I couldn’t articulate much about that gift until I ran the course several times and had collapsed back in my condo, exhausted and exhilarated from a day of learning and stretching my physical limits at 11,000 feet. Here are a few thoughts.

When we can’t see very far ahead we are invited to, and perhaps have no choice but to, be present to our bodies. This means we can only attend to what is really going

The Author Skiing into the Abyss

The Author Skiing into the Abyss

on right here in the present moment. And in that present moment, inside our bodies we respond with our whole body, being and heart.

I quickly realized what our coach meant. In reality, visibility (the ability to see) only gives us an illusion of control. The illusion that if we can see farther ahead we will be able to plan and not have to worry about what is happening in the present—our physical sensations, messy emotions, intimacy with ourselves and others, responding to the unexpectedly changing terrain, because we can simply just follow the plan.

Readiness is All

In ski racing, every racer is given the chance to (and virtually required to) inspect the course before taking their first run. Sometimes this involves “slipping the course” in a snowplow and/or slipping sideways through to smooth ruts and widen the brim of snow on the outside of the turns, at others it means skiing along side of the course on the outside. Some people have the ability to memorize the course after one inspection. This is not my strong suit. At best, I hope to remember where the trickiest turns and ice patches are. But every racer knows that by the time it comes to your run, the information you gathered during your inspection may well be old news. While the gates will be in the same place, a new rut or ice patch has developed where there wasn’t one before. Or you may become engulfed in a snow squall or wind gust in the midst of your run that no one can plan for. The good news is that when you are prepared, when you enter the starting gate with strength, flexibility, balance, and a reasonable level of skill and tactics, you only need to see as far as the next gate so that you can set up the arc of your next turn, sometimes while simultaneously recovering from a less than perfect turn on the previous gate.

Action is only possible in the present moment.

                                                  —Christian Noss

In life and in our organizations we sometimes can’t even see as far ahead as the next gate, let alone know what lies around the next turn. We can, and often do, inspect the terrain and go ahead and make our plans, but we lock in on those plans at our peril. As soon as the plan becomes an invitation to become comfortable, to abandon our whole person experience in the present moment, we lose our ability to effectively respond to the unexpected and unplanned, and to learn continuously. We also lose our ability to expand our confidence and competence in our capacity to be effective when we can’t see around the next gate.

For me on the race course, this means inspecting the course, setting my intention (with a little help from my coaches), then trusting my readiness and ability to respond in the moment. It also means knowing that falling (we call it crashing in ski racing) is not the end of the world (more on that in a future post).

Agile Organizations are Fit Organizations

With the change of seasons from summer to fall, my attention shifts from the flatlands of Chicago that I call home to the mountains of Colorado and the start of ski season. I recently reclaimed this beloved sport from my youth after a few decades-long hiatus (first due to lack of funds while working in the arts, and later succumbing to the challenge of rustling up interested friends to join me on the adventure). Today, I not only have recruited my wife and a few hearty friends, but joined a local ski club that offers me many opportunities to ski all season.

Author Pamela Meyer

Author Pamela Meyer

Even more than the skiing, I have fallen back in love with Alpine racing, a sport that all but ruled my life as a teenager growing up in Iowa (yes, I was a ski racer from Iowa, and that is another story altogether). Returning to racing in mid-life I can confidently say that Lindsay Vonn’s records are safe. And while each race lasts only 30-45 seconds and, at most, a race day will include four races, reclaiming my identity as an amateur athlete has had a positive impact well beyond my success in any individual race, race day or ski season—To be prepared for those races and ski season, I am motivated to maintain my fitness and agility throughout the year to be competitive.

Life-long physical fitness is characterized by strength, mobility, flexibility, stamina and balance (Nagasaki, Itoh, & Furuna, 1995), of course, with a healthy mix of rest and recovery. While, for me, those short races are a blip on the wider landscape of the ski season, not to mention my day-to-day life, to be able to negotiate the literal twists and turns of the race course, the unexpected patches of ice, the rut that wasn’t there the last run, I must arrive in the starting gate fit and agile. The same holds true for your business. While many of your day-to-day responsibilities or operations may be routine, you must always be prepared for the unexpected and unplanned, as well as constantly scanning the environment for new opportunities and challenges. To do so, consider how the characteristics of fitness translate to your organization. Could your organization pass a fitness test in each of these areas?

  • Strength (do you know your strengths and consistently build on and leverage them?)
  • Mobility: Are you and your workforce able to move with the needs of the market?
  • Flexibility: Have you developed the competence and capacity to adapt when things don’t go as planned?
  • Stamina: Have you built systems, processes and a culture that supports sustained success?
  • Balance: Does your organization have access to a diverse network of skills, knowledge, talent and resources to respond to opportunities and challenges as they arise?

Just as physical fitness is not attained simply by purchasing a gym membership, or working out with a trainer for a few months, organizational fitness requires a sustained commitment in each of these areas.

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Nagasaki, H., Itoh, H., & Furuna, T. (1995). A physical fitness model of older adults. Aging, 7(5), 392-397.

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