Limbering up: what is learning agility and could it be your career secret weapon?

Wednesday, June 8, 2016 - 13:05

By Hamish Williams.

For anyone that’s halfway serious about their career, it will come as no surprise that your ability to learn and acquire new knowledge is vitally important to your career success.

What may come as a shock is your ability to dump old knowledge and processes in favour of new ways of doing things is now also becoming highly sought after.

Most large Australian businesses now operate on a global stage and while this opens the doors for new opportunities, it also means they need to look carefully at their cost of doing business in order to compete. They need their leadership teams to be fearlessly innovative, constantly looking for better ways of doing things to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

So while organisations are prioritising innovation more than ever, why don’t we prioritise innovation in our own careers? It’s not completely our own fault because from a young age we’re taught the benefits of a linear education where knowledge sets build on themselves in an organised and structured way. This is then reinforced by workplaces where roles are filled on the basis of the possession of a well-defined set of skills and abilities.

In contrast, learning agility prioritises the qualities that allow leaders to stay flexible, learn from mistakes and tackle a wider range of challenges. Flexibility, resilience and adaptability may sound like qualities that all organisations need from their leaders but the systems of development haven’t wholeheartedly prioritised nurturing these attributes until now.

Researchers from the Center for Creative Leadership frame learning agility as the ability to remain open to new ways of thinking and to continuously learn new skills. Their research describes a mind-set and corresponding collection of practices that allow leaders to continually develop, grow, and utilise new strategies that will equip them for the increasingly complex problems they face in their organisations. They’ve identified four practices defined as “enablers” for building learning agility and one “derailer” which hinders the development of learning agility.

Learning Agility Enablers

Innovating – The first learning agility enabler is the most crucial but is one of the first to meet resistance from an organisation. Questioning the status quo and challenging long held assumptions doesn’t always make you popular but it's a very necessary task in order to discover new and innovative ways of doing things. The ability to see multiple perspectives and solutions to organisational challenges is important for building learning agility as is the will to act on these new ideas.

Risking – Also unpopular with organisations as much as it is with individuals, the willingness to leave a comfort zone and explore new opportunities is a key enabler of learning agility. Organisations have traditionally shied away from encouraging their employees to take unnecessary risks but this has tipped the other way in recent years as leaders are encouraged to a more entrepreneurial mindset. Individuals also need to be willing to take personal risks by taking on roles that come with a high risk of failure. By risking the chance at failure, they ultimately put themselves in the greatest position for growth.

Performing – We learn at our best when we’re immersed in a task, developing solutions and solving problems. Learning agility is developed when we remain present in difficult situations and open to the ambiguity presented. Emotional intelligence is crucial here as individuals need to listen, observe and process the information they’re presented with without negative emotions clouding their judgment and ultimately their performance.

Reflecting – Examining your own performance is a crucial component of building learning agility. This involves honest appraisal of your own work as much as it does seeking and valuing feedback from others. Even when negative feedback is provided, leaders with high learning agility will see this feedback not as a setback but as an opportunity to improve.

Learning Agility Disabler

Defending - Being open to new experiences and perspectives is the fastest way to learn but as individuals we tend to close off from new experiences and perspectives, particularly when we’ve experienced a certain level of success. There is an innate temptation to stick to the tried and true way of doing things as is the temptation to blindly defend your methodology when it’s questioned. It can be one of the most difficult aspects of learning agility to cultivate as feedback and new ideas can sometimes feel like an affront to your carefully constructed career self-concept. Emotional intelligence is once again crucial here as the ability to remain open to critical challenges and constructive feedback will ultimately lead to great learning agility.

So how learning agile are you now at this stage of your career? To answer this, have a look at the five questions below and answer honestly which practices you more readily adopt in your role currently.

Do you look for new ways of doing things or choose the most readily available solution?

Do you stay calm when faced with a challenge or do you use stress as a way of motivating yourself to work quicker?

Do you examine past failures to look for lessons or do you put failures quickly behind you?

Do you take on tasks that are unclear and ambiguous or do you search for tasks where you know you’ll be successful?

Do you take ownership of failures and seek feedback or do you only take ownership of success and avoid negative feedback?

Ultimately, learning agility is about not being content with past successes and staying in your comfort zone. When we open our eyes to real opportunities for growth and let go of our fear of failure, we enable ourselves to build learning agility. In a fast changing and increasingly competitive economy, your ability to build learning agility will position you as a highly sought after leader, capable of uncovering new innovations and developing better ways of doing business.

AIM offers a number of short courses that can help you develop your own learning agility. Leading for Innovation and Sustainability teaches managers the tools they need to develop and maintain a culture of enquiry, creativity and fearless innovation. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving teaches the skills you need to make decisions that are aligned to business goals. Leading With Emotional Intelligence teaches you how to be a more impactful and influential leader, with advanced skills in applying emotional intelligence.