You may not know it yet, but you want to be an agile learner. The environment is changing. Organizations are changing. Work is changing. Talent development needs to change too—not only in form, but also in purpose. We are past the time when a single dose of education was sufficient for a lifetime career. To stay ahead in today’s world, we all must learn, unlearn, relearn, and leverage that learning continuously. Our ability to rapidly create new, situation-specific knowledge is critical.
Do you ever feel like the minute you get a grip on what is required for you and your team to succeed, an external event triggers a shift in priorities, the grey zone expands and you’re forced to regroup and figure things out again? Is a new competitor rapidly gaining ground in the market you’ve been leading? Are changing conditions and cutting-edge technologies rendering existing knowledge irrelevant? Is growing uncertainty slowing down your actions and decisions when you should be moving more quickly?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ll not only need to learn something new, but you’ll need to do it fast, figuring things out and adjusting as you go.
Agility | “Nimbleness; the ability to move quickly and easily”
— Merriam-Webster dictionary
Agility applied to learning
So what does agility look like when applied to learning? What does it mean to be an agile learner?
In 2000, Lombardo & Eichinger proposed a definition of learning agility, describing it as ‘The willingness and ability to learn new competencies in order to perform under first-time, tough, or different conditions” (p.4). They laid out four dimensions: mental agility, people agility, change agility and results agility. Although this model has been dominant in mainstream literature and consulting service offerings, notably in the US, its complex, catchall construction has been criticized, as well as the means by which it is measured.
“The ability to come up to speed quickly in one’s understanding of a situation and move across ideas flexibly in service of learning, both within and across experiences”
Challenging previous models and studies, researchers at the University of Michigan later proposed a narrower definition of the concept, emphasizing speed and flexibility in learning. They defined learning agility as “the ability to come up to speed quickly in one’s understanding of a situation and move across ideas flexibly in service of learning, both within and across experiences” (p.262). They also identified six cognitive and behavioural processes underlying learning agility, as well as exemplary individual traits and environmental enablers.
The challenge for these frameworks, as is often the case, is to translate them into simple, actionable items that leaders and learners can make sense of and use. Although further empirical research is required, the Center for Creative Leadership has done a good job of making the notion of learning agility more user-friendly. The framework presented below builds on the CCL’s facets, while incorporating elements of the latter research. It highlights what agile learners appear to do differently than others.
Agile learners are…
Innovating. They are less committed to a single point of view and more open to experience and to challenging. They tend to innovate, regularly questioning the status quo.
Performing. They come up to speed quickly in first-time situations. They generate new knowledge for themselves and within their teams in order to perform.
They actively seek feedback and have the courage to drop inappropriate lessons, unlearn and relearn as environmental conditions evolve.
Reflecting. They critically reflect on their experiences to recognize patterns, as well as draw meaning and key learning that can be reinvested in the future.
Risking. They are both learning and performance goal oriented. They are deliberate in their learning, take risks and move beyond their comfort zone.
And, they avoid Defending. They actively seek feedback and have the courage to drop inappropriate lessons, unlearn and relearn as environmental conditions evolve.
What’s at stake?
As interesting as this may be, what’s at stake if individuals and leaders are unable to be more agile in their learning?
1. Leadership effectiveness and succession
Managers play a critical role in reconfiguring resources and competencies to generate new, value-creating strategies. They are expected to be strategic, transformational leaders, able to manage continuous change.
There is a concurrent need for organizations to identify and prepare a succession of such leaders, whose potential includes being skilled at learning from experience, while developing this same ability within their teams.
Yet, many leaders today are struggling to keep up, having to rapidly process new, abstruse information and adapt to the new realities of their role. The resulting stress and slowed decision-making is diametrically opposed to what’s required for an organization to sustain its competitive advantage.
2. Return on learning investments.
We are seeing clear trends disrupting traditional talent development practices._ _People development is increasingly achieved through means that are flexible and learner-centric (e.g. coaching, codevelopment) as well as through collaborative spaces that foster the acquisition and transfer of knowledge (e.g. communities of practice, learning circles, guilds). Clearly, today’s learning strategies are increasingly shifting development responsibility to individuals.
Yet, not all individuals are equipped to learn at the speed and with the flexibility imposed by these new strategies or by the numerous transitions they will be called upon to make over the course of their professional career. This trend assumes that people master an important meta-competency: the ability to learn. This is not always the case.
If your organization has a performance management process that includes personal development plans, you are likely to have seen this first hand. How many individuals actually own their development plan? How many of them proactively set goals, build, suggest, challenge and reflect on development activities and special assignments? The process may plan for such ownership, but few professionals and leaders actually know how to effectively learn from experience.
Likewise, it is not uncommon to see collaborative learning platforms and initiatives be underused. Getting the most from these channels requires participants to be self-directed and deliberate in their learning: What are my performance and development goals? What knowledge or experience do I need to achieve them? Who can help me? What can I share? The value of these exchanges will also come from individuals’ ability to articulate their knowledge and transfer learning into practice. How many collaborative learning initiatives actually provide for this sort of user enablement?
Individuals learn from a combination of experience, exposure and education. According to the 70:20:10 model, roughly 90% of learning occurs outside formal learning situations, but the bulk of development efforts and investments in many organizations continue to be directed to the 10%. Isn’t it time we developed agile learners to accelerate this informal learning?
Coaching for learning agility
At first glance, it can be puzzling to picture which activities are most likely to be effective in developing learning agility. As of yet, research has not gone very far down that road. It is anticipated, however, that engaging in these behaviours will help individuals develop them over time. Hence, raising awareness of the facets of learning agility and facilitating experimentation appear to be promising avenues for development.
Self-discovery and experimentation are a significant part of development coaching. As a learner-driven and collaborative development process, coaching is, in my view, uniquely suited to cultivate agile learners.
Coaching is defined by the International Coach Federation (ICF) as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential, which is particularly important in today’s uncertain and complex environment.”
In this partnership, individuals being coached are responsible for setting the course, generating their own solutions and strategies, and monitoring their progress. Through observation, deep listening, questioning and feedback, coaches facilitate the learning process, and guide individuals as they take bold actions to reach their goals and aspirations more quickly and effectively.
As it is defined above, coaching incorporates and cultivates many of the key facets of learning agility:
- It is structured around goals that are chosen, defined and of significant importance to the individual being coached. This drives intrinsic motivation and facilitates experimentation outside of their comfort zone. (Risk taking)
- Through feedback and questioning, coaching encourages the challenging of one’s values, beliefs and understanding of the environment, allowing individuals to reframe their views. (Innovating, Defending)
- It is action-focused and grounded in experience. (Performing)
- It is reflective, providing space for deeper insights and learning. (Reflecting)
Coaching is known to produce effects that span beyond immediate outcomes. People who are coached learn better and are often able to reinvest that learning in coaching themselves throughout their life and career.
If coaches are interested in helping others not only reach their goals but develop the speed and flexibility with which they learn, the following questions may help raise awareness and trigger new actions:
- If you were _____________, how would you describe the situation? What possibilities does this new insight open up for the future? (Innovating)
- What exactly are you seeing? What else do you know about the situation? Who can help you quickly shed some light on grey areas? (Performing)
- How have similar situations played out in the past? What patterns do you see in your response? What works? What could you do differently? (Reflecting)
- What risks have you taken (in your career, job, role; this week, last month)? What are you avoiding? (Risk taking)
- Describe the emotions this situation brings to the surface in you? What needs lie behind? (Reflecting)
- Which of your talents has most contributed to your professional success to this day? What would others say? What could you gain in leaving this behind? (Defending)
The future of learning
As De Rue, Ashford and Myers put it, it is safe to say that “if organizations are becoming more complex and facing more uncertainty and dynamism in the environment, there will be payoff for firms that can better identify and employ highly agile learners as well as payoff for individuals within those firms who can demonstrate agile learning.” (p.274)
The first step to addressing these issues is recognizing that what’s made us successful to this day may not be what’s required to perform in the years to come.
We then need to acknowledge the limits of current development models and the need to shift from conventional competency development programs towards the enablement of fast & flexible (agile) learning, every day. This is as much the responsibility of organizations, leaders, as it is that of individual learners.
How do we do this?
- By going beyond workshops, beyond technology;
- By raising awareness among leaders and business professionals of learning agile behaviours and incorporating these into succession criteria;
- By tapping into people’s intrinsic motivation to drive commitment and self-directed action on development plans;
- By incorporating reflexive activities and other mechanisms that enhance experiential learning, including development coaching.
You, and your ability to step into instability, stay open to new realities, unlearn and relearn continuously as you make sense of work and life experiences.
You are the future of learning. You, and your ability to step into instability, stay open to new realities, unlearn and relearn continuously as you make sense of work and life experiences. Speicher goes on to say: “Innovations don’t really matter if you’re not ready to learn. To spur learning, you have to allow disequilibrium to happen—that uncomfortable state you enter into when the world tells you something that’s different from what you already know.” Breaking through this disequilibrium is what learning is all about.
Learn with intention. Deliberately. Toward set goals. Seek to be destabilized and throw off your balance.
Learn fast. Every day. As you act. Build more than a professional development plan; build your own personal destabilization plan and critically reflect on those experiences.
Learn flexibly. Staying open to new experiences. Courageously leaving the tried & true behind.
Learn with agility. Fast and flexibly. Collaboratively.
Ready to give it a try? Up your learning game and kick-start your development with a few simple questions:
To self-direct your professional growth…
- What is it that you truly want – personally or professionally?
- How have you explicitly defined your goal?
- Who is leading your progress towards this objective?
- What have you personally put into place to move towards its achievement? How will you know you’ve succeeded?
- What new challenge could you set for yourself?
- Who can help you reach your objective? How are you connecting with these individuals?
- When will you start? How will you track your progress?
To start building your personal ‘destabilization’ plan…
- Name two of your best strengths. What are you really great at?
- What are the growing pains for you as a leader?
- How often do you challenge your own assumptions? What feedback have you solicited from others? Could there be blind spots?
- Where and how have you experimented something new, stepping out of your comfort zone and learning as you go? How did that feel?
- What throws you off balance? When was the last time you seriously felt destabilized? What did you learn?
- What could a personal ‘destabilization’ plan look like for you?
- What would you never think of doing? How could you do it? Who could support you?
Final tips: Think 70:20:10 and reflect on your experience. Build just enough of what scares you into your development plan: seek the discomfort, not the panic!