Elevate Your Learning Agility Game: Unleash the Untapped Potential of This Powerful Strategy

For many years, I taught a business creativity course to adult undergraduate students at DePaul University. In addition to learning various creativity theories, I devoted half the class time to improvisation games and eventually fully improvised scenes. The class allowed students to develop a pre-defined competence of “Can apply the theory and practice of improvisation to enhance workplace creativity.”

These sessions first taught me the importance of naming and sharing your learning goals and, more importantly, the value of holding your goals lightly and leaving some room for surprises.

The Value to Naming and Sharing Your Learning Goals

Research shows that committing to specific goals AND sharing them with others greatly enhances your likelihood of achieving them. Your chances of success are even greater if you share those results with someone whose status or authority you respect (e.g., a manager, mentor, or colleague you admire). This is particularly valuable when venturing into new territory demanding learning agility. For workplace learning, it can be especially effective to:

  • Draft and share your learning goals.
  • Keep a learning journal or other record of your experiences and lessons learned throughout your endeavor.
  • Share your progress and learning outcomes with a trusted friend, colleague, or mentor and, ideally, with a broader community, such as your team, or at your next Lunch & Learn session.

To get started, draft a short competence statement before you embark on your new learning adventure. You can download a competence statement template and example in the Summer of Learning Framework.

Distinguish Between Process and Performance Goals

As important as drafting learning goals is recognizing the learning that happens along the way to developing competence. These include expanding your network, becoming more comfortable learning in a new way, and even discovering talents you didn’t know you had.

In contrast, performance goals are the projected outcomes and impact of your learning. For example, will your new skills and knowledge help you increase sales, improve teamwork, or reduce time to market? In other words, “How will your new competence generate value for you and your stakeholders?”

Leave Room for Surprises

The growth that happens on our way to developing new competency is sometimes hard to predict, and these surprises can be the best part! Over the years teaching my creativity course, I witnessed and heard so many stories of transformation that I centered my doctoral research on the question, “What happens for people as they learn to improvise?” The findings inspired my book,  From Workplace to Playspace: Innovating, Learning and Changing Through Dynamic Engagement.

Success Story: How Starshine Got Her Groove Back

One woman’s journey stood out as especially surprising. In her first learning journal (which she permitted me to quote from using her nickname “Starshine”), she wondered why she had even registered for a class that included improvisation in the description. She described herself as “shy” and someone “who gets nervous in front of people” and “rarely speaks in class.” She lived into this identity for the first few weeks of class while still dutifully participating in all the class exercises, however uncomfortable they were. Then, one day, about halfway into the quarter, she was in a scene with two classmates, one well over a foot taller than she was. The improvisation scenario was a robbery taking place within a shoe store. Starshine, astonishing herself and her classmates, leaped into the scene with an imaginary gun and pulled the much taller male “shoe salesperson” into a playful headlock. The short scene quickly unfolded to peels of laughter as the formerly retiring Starshine took total control of the scene and “robbed” the improvised store of all of the latest styles in footwear.

 

In her journal that night, she described feeling “physically and mentally open for anything to come my way” and leaving the class with “a feeling of sureness, freedom, and optimism about me.”

In the following weeks and months, Starshine’s confidence within and beyond the classroom only grew. She later reported that she was now speaking up and sharing ideas more freely at work. She had joined Toastmasters and was even standing up to speak to her large congregation on Sundays, something she couldn’t have previously imagined.

Why It’s Important to Hold Your Learning Goals Lightly

While Starshine demonstrated the pre-defined course competence, I share her story as a reminder of the value of setting learning goals; we should hold those goals lightly. By that, I mean that if we only focus on our pre-defined destination, we might miss all the additional ways we are learning and growing along the way.

In addition to “enhancing her workplace creativity,” Starshine deepened her relationships with her learning colleagues by becoming willing to share more of her playful self, encouraging them to do the same. She became a valuable faith community member by speaking up and inspiring others. And perhaps most importantly, she found her voice and developed confidence in her ability to think on her feet and contribute positively even in unfamiliar settings.

It wasn’t an explicit learning goal, yet the most valuable aspect of Starshine’s experience was the confidence she developed in her ability to learn and adapt to new and changing circumstances: her LEARNING AGILITY.

Pro Tip: This is an important reminder for my talent development colleagues as they measure the impact of their L&D strategies: Be sure your evaluations include open questions to discover the unexpected aspects of the learning experience. They may end up being even more impactful than your planned outcomes!

Bonus Resources

Here are a few resources to help you craft and refine your learning goals:

Summer of Learning Week 2: From Wonder to Wisdom—Ask the Right Questions to Accelerate Your Learning

When I returned to alpine ski racing after a few decades of hiatus, I was instore for a big surprise. For starters, I was nervous that I would be one of the oldest racers on the hill. It turned out I was one of the youngest! Many of the racers out there were still going strong well into their 60s, 70s, and even 80s. That’s me on the left in the photo with my friend, Karl Landl, still racing at age 87.

This discovery sparked my curiosity. I wondered what kept these hardy souls coming out weekend after weekend, year after year, in all conditions to compete on our tiny Wisconsin race hill and countless others around the country. As you likely know by now, this curiosity led me to a years-long inquiry, and the discoveries I made resulted in my latest book, Staying in the Game.

Leading with Curiosity

From interviewing masters ski racers and other business leaders who embody agility, I soon discovered that the starting point of any successful and sustainable learning endeavor is to Lead with Curiosity.

Whether they are curious about how to increase their edge angles on steep turns or how to better navigate the twists and turns of a volatile market, the motivation is the same: continuous improvement and expanded understanding.

If your fast-paced life has crowded out space in your brain for wonder, this might be an excellent opportunity to slow down enough to ponder what you are curious about. Give yourself room to consider what is truly meaningful to you rather than everything you think you “should” be learning.

Curiosity is the secret sauce that helps all Embodied Agile Leaders stay motivated and relevant throughout their careers.

One of my favorite examples of curiosity from Staying in the Game is the career of renowned theater and film director Peter Brook. The New York Times called him “the greatest innovator of his generation” who pursued his passion with “relentless curiosity” throughout his life.

Brook led with curiosity starting at age seven, staging a four-hour production of Hamlet in his toy theater. This quest continued to his final production, aptly titled, “Why?” which opened in the fall of 2019, just months before the COVID-19 shut-down and less than two years before his death at 97.

The secret to his success?

It’s simple, he shared, “Never stop asking questions.”

Here are a few questions to get your curiosity wheels turning

  • Think about recent conversations, articles, shows, or podcasts you’ve been engaged with. What has stood out to you? What piqued your curiosity?
  • What new trends are getting your attention?
  • What are you hearing or reading about that you want to learn more about?
  • What challenges and opportunities are your customers grappling with?
  • What other questions do you have?
Use your answers to refine your learning focus in the coming months, with the Summer of Learning Framework as your guide.

Here’s where my curiosity has led me so far:

I promised to share my SoL process with you, hoping it keeps you engaged, but also to hold myself accountable.

Because I work with leaders and teams in various industries, from pharma to finance and beyond, I’m curious about how AI trends affect their businesses and how they work.

In addition to reading countless articles, participating in numerous webinars, and listening to more podcasts than is legally allowed, I am taking my inquiry to where it matters most: my clients.

In our conversations, I’m asking: “How is AI affecting your organization and team and your customers? How is it impacting you, personally? How are you using it? What are you learning? The answers I hear are as varied as the organization, specific team, and individual.

However, two themes are emerging:
  1. Almost every business is integrating AI into their products and services to improve efficiency and customization, particularly for their customers. Some are much further along than others.
  2. Employees are increasingly using AI to augment their work processes, but they must do so within strict company guidelines and follow necessary security protocols.

If you are interested in this topic, here are just two resources that I recommend:

  1. A recent Harvard Business Review panel, “Answering the Generative AI Skills Challenge”.
  2. Another great resource, especially if your work includes learning and development or coaching, is the Training Magazine Network. It has been offering several excellent webinars on AI learning trends and strategies.

In addition to learning about AI trends and resources, I have been experimenting with various AI features in the platforms and applications I already use. Here are two short insights from this past week and one lesson learned:

  • 1.  So far, my favorite feature is the Zoom Workplace AI Meeting Summary. Just turn it on, and it emails you a summary of your discussion, along with your agreed-upon action steps.
  • 2.  After several experiments with ChatGPT this past year, and more recently with Google Gemini I’ve concluded that, as a writer, I’m just not comfortable having someone or something else put words in my mouth. While sometimes more efficient, the results don’t sound like me and often bear little resemblance to what I was trying to say. At the same time, I am finding they help generating things like subject lines and headers and even to create summaries for longer pieces. You can also have some fun with it by doing things like playing the improv game, “One Word Story.” I’m also experimenting with Google Gemini’s image generator, which, so far, is less than impressive and doesn’t compete with Canva’s.
  • NOTE: Review the privacy statements on any AI app you use. With all AI products, it is wise to avoid entering any personal, proprietary, or confidential information. Many enterprise security systems have a firewall for GenAI sites.

Lessons Re-Learned: Progress, Not Perfection

I have been teaching and writing about this for years: Learning can be uncomfortable, messy, and sometimes even challenge our sense of ourselves as competent, capable people—especially in the workplace where the pressure to appear competent and in control can deter us from enthusiastically venturing into new territories.

Embodied Agile Leaders (EALs) model learning agility by courageously embodying the learning process. They don’t wait until they have attained a level of mastery to share their learning. Just because I know the discomfort of new learning in my bones doesn’t mean I’m immune to the temptation to defend myself against it.

One of the biggest challenges I am experiencing as I play with GenAI tools and new digital engagement strategies is not the actual technical learning or the “how-to” aspect. It’s that venturing into new territory in a more visible way feels a bit vulnerable and challenges my identity as someone who is fluent in all that is latest and greatest. This is an uncomfortable and wonderful experience to have as it is essentially what I ask the leaders I work with to do as they develop their agility capability. I’m learning to give myself some grace to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable in my own learning process, and I hope you do, too.

 

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Summer of Learning Kick-Off

Stylized ice cream cone with a cloud for ice cream, pink cone and blue background with the text "what are you learning this summer?"A friend shared that she and her team have dubbed the season their “Summer of Learning.”

She works in an industry that is typically slower in the summer months. Rather than simply using their extra time to catch up and get ready for the fall season, they are taking advantage of this opportunity to understand the latest industry trends, learn new technology, develop new skills, and—most importantly—share their discoveries with their colleagues and deepen their culture of learning.

Invitation to Join the Summer of Learning

As we kick off the official start of summer in the northern hemisphere, my friend inspired me to embark on my own Summer of Learning, and I want to invite you to join me!

If you are like me, you may have at least a few new trends you’ve meant to explore more deeply, skills you’d like to build or refresh, books you want to read, and likely relationships that need some time and attention, all of these can be part of your Summer of Learning!

In this spirit of furthering my journey of learning:

  • I’ve begun a deeper dive into AI resources and trends, especially as they relate to leadership agility and talent development.
  • I’ve also blocked out time each week to reconnect with friendships that went into hibernation over the winter.
  • And, I am planning to brush up on my Spanish with 10-20 minutes of Duolingo daily.

My Summer of Learning also includes exploring ways to improve the value and engagement of this newsletter for you and your team by sharing more fresh ideas for you to share with your team as you tackle increasingly complex issues and prepare for an increasingly dynamic future.

Commitment

In this endeavor, I am learning the same lesson the Embodied Agile Leaders I wrote about in Staying in the Game taught me: good intentions don’t always translate into action. It takes Commitment.

If you want this summer to be different from all of your past summers, which went by too fast, I hope you’ll join me. I could use some learning buddies!

Get Started with the Summer of Learning Framework

It’s simple to get started. Just download and review the four-stage Summer of Learning Framework Worksheet inspired by my 20+ years teaching in the innovative competency-based program at DePaul University.

To maximize your impact and chances of success, I encourage you to share it with your team members, colleagues, and friends. It will be a great springboard for future conversations and help you stay accountable.

If you haven’t already, please sign up for my Summer of Learning email series HERE to receive regular prompts and ideas to spur your learning and imagination throughout the summer;