In 1970, an American author, Alvin Toffler wrote the book Future Shock, which stated, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. His explanation of learning agility could not be a more accurate prediction of how to thrive in a changing business context.
Fifty years later his predictions could not be more correct. We exist in an increasingly complex global business environment, where constant change is the new normal and both leaders and employees are being asked to work in new and often unknown ways simply to do their jobs. To be able to survive in this unpredictable world of work, we need to be able to adapt, grow and evolve, and in doing so maximise our learning agility.
So, what is learning agility and why is it one of the critical characteristics for success? Learning agility is a skill in high demand. The learning agile amongst us can connect past and present information and experiences quickly and adapt and solve problems despite constant change and often ambiguous information. They are considered risk-takers, open to new ideas and solutions, act quickly, enjoy taking on new challenges and are very comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Agile learners make excellent leaders. Think about your past leaders. Have you had one that seeks out those who can add value or a different perspective to a problem the organisation is facing, listen to their solutions and provide a considered response? If you’ve experienced this, then it’s likely you’ve encountered an agile learner. They’re not afraid to admit they don’t know everything, and they have an ability to learn quickly from people and situations.
Learning agility is an excellent and essential leadership skill but as a recruiter or Human Resource professional, how do you spot an agile learner in today’s fast-paced environment? According to researchers at Columbia University and the Centre for Creative Leadership, there are four behaviours that determine agile learners and one that derails it.
Innovating: agile learners question the status-quo, challenge historic and long-held assumptions with the goal of discovering new and innovative ways of achieving things.
Performing: agile learners have excellent observation and listening skills and the ability to stay present and engaged during uncertainty while processing information quickly.
Reflecting: agile learners are very self-aware and request feedback regularly to improve their understanding and behaviour.
Risking: agile learners are pioneers and love venturing out into the unknown to try new things and take risks, which could lead to unexpected opportunities. They move past their comfort zone regularly and are comfortable with failure as they recognise it will eventually lead to success.
As with most characteristics, there is always a dark side. The agile learner’s ‘derailer’ is:
Defending: learning and experiencing new things is fundamental to agile learners so individuals who are close-minded, defensive and do not like criticism tend to be low on learning agility.
The research also discovered that in a work environment agile learners are typically:
- More extraverted: enjoy socialising and more likely to take charge.
- More focused: strive for perfection with their work and are more organised and methodical.
- More original: they are more likely to have new ideas, readily accept innovation and change, and create new plans and ideas.
- More resilient: they rebound quickly from stressful events and are generally quite calm.
- Less accommodating: they are more likely to welcome engagement, enjoy expressing their opinion and challenge others.
Learning agility is fast becoming one of the top characteristics sought after by recruiters and organisations, so how does your learning agility measure up? Recognising this essential attribute is key to growing your agile learning skills, plus it will help you manage and thrive in an increasingly complex business environment.
The Centre for Creative Leadership has compiled a list of tips to help boost your learning agility.
Innovate: challenge yourself to think past your first solution when faced with a problem because trying new approaches could lead to unexpected and a more efficient way of doing things.
Perform: when in a highly pressurised situation, resist the urge to rush and instead draw on past similar experiences and ask questions to understand, not be understood.
Reflect: request open and honest feedback from someone you trust and take time to reflect on what could be done differently or understand how you can learn from the experience.
Take risks: relish the opportunity to take on new challenges that push you out of your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to ask for help and support during these moments.
Don’t defend: avoid becoming defensive or close yourself off to feedback and experiences. Embrace feedback and see it as a gift and an opportunity to learn from.
Discovering these behaviours within yourself and others is essential to growing and cultivating an organisation that is more flexible, adaptable and resilient in our volatile and competitive business environment. Experiencing the benefits of learning agility within your organisation will take time and commitment but once these behaviours are cultivated and encouraged your organisation will survive, thrive and ultimately be more sustainable.
About the author
Yvonne Lewandowksi leads the Leadership, Culture and Diversity practice at Meritos and has more than 20 years extensive experience in human resources. If you're interested in connecting with Yvonne, you can find her on LinkedIn here. You can also reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.