Bend and Flex: Building Learning Agility
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A former manager once told me I had the ability to quickly assimilate information, that he could tell me how to do something and I would then apply that knowledge to a variety of different situations. I now see this feedback as the ultimate compliment, for my manager felt I had learning agility.
Learning agility is openness to new information and the ability to gain and apply insights derived from this information. People with this trait often follow a nontraditional path and can develop professionally from an array of diverse experiences. Learning-agile people aren’t perturbed by shifts in direction. They are focused on the end state and are willing to put themselves out there. When they fall, they get back up. They take risks and often receive commensurate rewards.
Consulting firm Green Peak Partners collaborated with researchers from Teachers College at Columbia University in New York to assess the value learning-agile individuals bring to their organizations. Their study found that private equity-backed C-suite leaders who ranked high for learning agility on an assessment test also outperformed less agile peers as measured by revenue growth and “boss ratings” issued by their boards.
Why is learning agility especially critical today? In their book “The Future-Proof Workplace,” Linda Sharkey and Morag Barrett wrote that in the past education could be described by “I,” or deep knowledge and expertise in one area. But the shape of the future-proof learner is better represented by a truncated “T” because a single area of expertise simply doesn’t work in an increasingly complex workplace. Rather, employees must be more flexible and possess knowledge across disciplines. “Today’s car mechanic is a great example of the new ‘T’ learner, with a deep knowledge of mechanics, in addition to engineering skills to support the electronics now added to the car’s design,” they wrote.
Emphasize Core Actions of Learning-Agile Individuals
Learning-agile employees have honed specific habits. Teaching and encouraging your team members to practice these habits, which follow, will build agility capital on your team.
First, challenge preexisting mindsets. Be open to new ways of doing things. Pay attention to the processes and examples your team is using to address issues.
Always ask: What are 10 different ways I could approach this? You might not actually execute all the ideas you come up with, but you shouldn’t dismiss anything out of hand.
Look for the common thread. What aspects of your current projects are similar to projects or challenges you’ve faced before? For example, if a current marketing campaign isn’t working as intended, could the problem be like last year’s technology implementation, in which you didn’t do enough advance audience research?
Reflect on the past. Explore what-ifs and alternative histories for projects in which you’ve been involved. Never pass up an opportunity for genuine feedback, asking, “What are three or four things I could have done better?” Make sure the question is open-ended but specific so that you can act on what you learn.
Take more risks. Look for stretch assignments where success isn’t a given. These might involve new roles, new parts of the company or new geographies.
Avoid getting defensive. When a risky project fails, don’t scramble to cover your tracks or look around to see who you can blame. Accept that you’re fallible and acknowledge the misstep. Capture the key learnings and make a conscious effort to take a different path next time.
Finally, don’t unconsciously put down learning-agile teammates. Individuals with learning agility constantly challenge the status quo and may appear rough around the edges to more diplomatic, laissez-faire colleagues. However, their value is undeniable and the more of them we have working for us at all levels, the better off we’ll be.
Encourage Acquisition of Diverse Expertise
Learning agility isn’t just a mindset. It also helps to provide a wider bench of skills from which to draw. Fortunately, it’s only getting easier to get a more generalized education or train a specific new skill without a lengthy degree-seeking process. Thanks to the rise of MOOCs, employees may not even need to leave their desks.
For example, hedge fund manager Salman Khan launched The Khan Academy as a series of YouTube video lectures intended to teach mathematics to his young relatives. Now, the academy houses thousands of videos on everything from graphic design to physics, most only a few minutes long. Udacity offers nanodegrees, which provide training and certification in technical subjects and skills (cybersecurity, software engineering and so on) and take six to 12 months to complete. Surprisingly, many of the best MOOCs are free. Computer scientist Sebastian Thrun taught an artificial intelligence course to Stanford students while also offering it as a free MOOC. More than 160,000 people signed up.
We as leaders need to prompt our people to judge for themselves which coursework is most appropriate at a given time because the future work world demands that individuals seek out and participate in self-directed learning. If your teammates need a model for this, they need only look to many of today’s grade school students. The popular private education method founded by Maria Montessori in the early 20th century teaches children to follow their curiosity rather than direct instructions.
Even in state school classrooms, the flipped classroom model is taking hold. Using this method, children use digital resources to master a subject on their own, and the instructor facilitates a discussion afterward. In this way, children can learn at their own pace and focus on the material that promotes the most interest and utility.
Whether it’s offering a company-developed course, tuition reimbursement, an extra hour to do a MOOC or a stretch assignment with another department, work with each of your employees to devise a learning and development plan that makes the most sense for your team and for them as individual careerists. Keeping the agility concept in mind, the plan should be updated routinely to keep pace with changing goals and new skill requirements.
Leaders should also institutionalize intrapreneurship to increase learning agility. Intrapreneurship is the practice of entrepreneurial strategies within the context of, and leveraging the resources of, an established organization. Many companies have come up with creative ways to incorporate intrapreneurship into everyday operations.
The Microsoft Garage resides in Bill Gates’ old office and serves as a space for employees in any role to work on innovative projects. Coca-Cola’s startup weekends and incubator programs prompt staff to develop and pitch ideas that will take the company to the next level. Stock photography company Shutterstock hosts an annual daylong hackathon during which employees present demos for new tools that will improve the customer experience. Two tools that are now used routinely — Spectrum (color search) and Oculus (data analysis) — were initially unveiled at the hackathons and integrated into Shutterstock’s core business.
Companies talk a good game when it comes to innovation, but it can only happen when prioritized by senior leaders. Your first strategy here is to establish an in-person committee dedicated to coming up with one new revolutionary process or service a month. Give each of your employees an occasional afternoon or full workday to work on passion projects that will drive the business forward.
Recall the risk-taking nature of the learning-agile individual, and reward experimentation. If you insist that your people always adhere to existing policies and procedures — staying in budget and staying in line — your organization will suffer in the long run. Communicate to your staff that they should feel free to tinker. Incentivize employees to take risks and launch new initiatives, and make sure they know that if an idea fails, their careers will go on.
Practice Hands-Off Management
You can also promote learning agility by imbuing your team with greater independence. Self-managed teams are licensed by a senior leader to operate independently and are given the resources necessary to meet predetermined business objectives.
One of the reasons workers like startups so much is that being on a smaller team means they can cut through less red tape to do their jobs. Self-managed teams employ the same concept of team ownership (i.e., action can be taken without the extra step of seeking approval within a traditional hierarchy).
Self-managed teams use regularly scheduled meetings to ensure members are on the same page in terms of the best way to move forward. They gain consensus on a small scale and then quickly proceed, avoiding problematic situations like receiving conflicting marching orders from different executives and remaining in a holding pattern until some piece of essential communication trickles down the line.
A few years ago, shoe retailer Zappos got the world’s attention when it jumped into the most extreme version of self-managed teams. The company obliterated its hierarchy, getting rid of all titles and inviting employees to organize into “circles” working toward the same goal.
Because working with other teams is so easy, Zappos workers are more likely to expand their skills and acquire cross-functional expertise. The company even institutionalized this idea with the launch of the Role Marketplace, an internal job board that lists specific tasks other teams need completed. The Role Marketplace saves Zappos money in recruiting and contracting costs and gives individual employees the opportunity to spread their wings if their current workload is light or they are jonesing to try something new.
By participating in another team’s project, an employee might earn a badge that showcases their newfound experience. Once you have a badge, it’s easier to be selected for another project with that group because you’ve proven you’re qualified. And, as you’ve likely guessed, this process results in greater learning agility all around.
Make Learning Agility Easy
Your efforts to build learning-agile teams will pay off sooner rather than later if you spell it out as a value and make it part of your culture. For instance, infuse ongoing learning opportunities into daily responsibilities and align them with performance expectations. Give your people every chance you can to apply new learnings in real-world business scenarios and reward them for coaching and serving as mentors to their peers. There’s nothing like sitting next to a more experienced colleague to learn something new!
Your team should also curate learning content so that you create a powerful brain trust and no one feels they must reinvent the wheel. Between the free material available online and the massive library that inevitably exists within your organization, your team probably has access to as much information as it needs. However, it’s up to leaders to ensure that this content is organized and easily accessible.
As an example, publisher Kogan Page is in the process of creating a digital platform that will allow any employee to search and read content from more than 900 backlist titles.
Learning agility isn’t a skill that comes naturally to everyone, especially those who were educated in a more traditional climate. But by encouraging certain habits, promoting skill acquisition, fostering intrapreneurship, practicing hands-off management and making learning easy, your team will possess a major advantage in an increasingly fast-paced business world.