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).

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