Learning agility: Do you know what to do when you don’t know what to do?


In challenging and complex modern business environments, change and disruption are a common rhythm, making agility a critical skill for future success. But how agile are you in your learning? Learning agility can be defined as a set of skills that enables you to learn something new in one place and then apply what you’ve learned elsewhere. It is your ability to learn, adapt, unlearn and relearn to keep up in a constantly changing business landscape.

By being open to new ideas and using them to innovate — rather than relying on standard or outdated information, this mindset allows you to find ways through unfamiliar situations using accumulated knowledge and gives you an intuitive and powerful edge.

Research shows ‘learning agility’ to be a powerful indicator of high potential; forward-thinking organisations which view their leaders as key drivers of success are increasingly focusing on learning agility to differentiate talent. Deloitte defines it as one of the essential characteristics of leadership — an assertion backed up by findings of a study by Korn Ferry that shows that effective leaders are able to make sense of apparently unrelated pieces of information or ideas and discover innovative solutions from this matrix — as well as have the confidence to make decisions, even when complete data is missing.

According to the viaEDGE: Assessment for Measuring Learning Agility, 15% of the global workforce is naturally highly agile. Korn Ferry found individuals with high learning ability to have been promoted twice as fast as individuals with low learning agility[1]. For ‘learning agile’ leaders, this ‘superpower’ is made up of qualities and attributes that allow an individual to stay flexible, take feedback and grow from mistakes. These include the ability and willingness to learn and then apply those lessons to a variety of situations as well as embrace new challenges. In essence, according to the Center for Creative Leadership, learning agility is ‘the ability to know what to do…when you don’t know what to do’, and to lead with confidence, even when things are unclear or information incomplete.


Why does it matter?

Adaptiveness and creative problem-solving are critical leadership skills that businesses will need for the future. In their report, Korn Ferry researchers wrote: ‘People who are learning agile seek out experiences to learn from; enjoy complex problems and challenges associated with new experiences because they have an interest in making sense of them; perform better because they incorporate new skills into their repertoire. A person who is learning agile has more lessons, more tools, and more solutions to draw on when faced with new business challenges.’

For women in business this may confer a distinct competitive edge as the business world demands ever more responsive solutions and innovative ideas. According to Korn Ferry’s Women CEOs Speak study, female CEOs tend to actively seek out challenging stretch work assignments to help sharpen their agility and build career mastery.  Women may also benefit from a greater propensity to natural learning agility thanks to emotional intelligence elements such as emotional empathy and self-awareness — areas in which many studies have shown that they perform particularly strongly.

In a 2019, the WEF noted in a report that learning agility starts with curiosity — and by continually asking ‘why?’ and actively seeking feedback, enhanced learning agility can also help to keep careers dynamic – avoiding plateaux that can be caused by over-relying on past solutions, ‘blind spots’ or underdeveloped competencies. Importantly, learning agility is not so much about what someone has accomplished. It’s about what they have the potential to accomplish, especially when faced with new challenges.


Ways to sharpen up your learning agility

In the 2020 Global Human Capital Trends survey, 86% of those polled felt they needed to reinvent their ability to learn; showing that we have an innate understanding of the powerful need to be able to continually learn and assimilate new information — even if we are sometimes not sure of the best way. The good news though is that while some might have a more natural leaning toward an agile learning mindset, anybody can foster and nurture it their own life through practice and experience.


1. Push yourself into the new

Seek out new and diverse experiences and immerse yourself in situations that broaden your skills and perspective. The unfamiliar offers refreshing challenge, especially if you push past your comfort zone to get the full growth potential of the experience. Look for ‘stretch assignments’ and learn to feel more comfortable with risk. Take on a new challenge that scares you — it’ll help you grow and develop new skills and perspectives for future use.


2. Don’t get stuck on a first solution

Learning agility means looking beyond the obvious or easy, so don’t always choose the first solution that comes to mind in a problem; instead, challenge yourself to think around the problem, bring in other points of view and try out new approaches to uncover ways of doing things that could save time and energy and again expand your repertoire of responses.


3. Making pushing for new ideas a habit

When faced with a challenge or difficult situation, make it a habit to ask yourself leading questions and seek out new solutions. You don’t have to necessarily action everything that you come up with, but the act of exploring further as an operating standard will set your mind on a more agile path. Questions could include: ‘What’s holding me back from trying something new and different?’, ‘What else?’, ‘What are 10 more ways I could approach this?’ or ‘What are several radical things I could try here?’


4. Try ‘counterfactual thinking

Don’t be afraid to explore the ‘what-ifs’ and ‘what could have beens’ on projects and use the feedback — not to berate yourself, but to learn. This is not a post-mortem, rather a fact-finding mission. Engage colleagues and team members for input with specific and carefully framed questions such as ‘What three things could I/we have done better here?’ or ‘Which idea do you think we discarded too soon?’ — making sure the questions are open-ended enough to encourage people to really share their thoughts with you.


5. Practice non-defensiveness

When asking for feedback, push back on the temptation to explain your actions or make excuses. Defending ‘what is’ is a self-preservation tactic, but by putting yourself in that space you close yourself off to future potential and the ‘what could be’. As counterintuitive as it might feel sometimes, the practise of non-defensiveness is a key way to keep agile in your learning and to see crucial patterns over time. The easiest way to remain in the non-defensive space is to always thank the other person for their contribution.


6. Take time to reflect

In a busy world, it can feel as if there is no time to reflect. But an agile learning style requires that you think further than just what has happened and ask why things happened that way. Make it a habit to step back during or after every project or important interaction — alone or with trusted colleagues — and consider how you are interacting with it, what you’re learning from the feedback you’re getting and what is currently working well, as well as what isn’t, and why.


[1] https://focus.kornferry.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Learning-agility.jpg


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