Learning Agility: What It Is and How to Cultivate It

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve noticed that we’re living in an age of disruption.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation are changing business patterns.

It’s no longer business as usual — employees must adapt to shifting skill sets and employers must change their mindsets.

Now, more than ever, employers and employees must learn, adapt and unlearn to maximize productivity and deal with complex business challenges.

This is what’s referred to as learning agility, and this ‘70s author made an accurate prediction.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” – Alvin Toffler, Future Shock

An individual with learning agility must be willing to give up what worked in the past. She must then learn new coping skills to deal with unforeseen setbacks and opportunities.

Image: Flickr by Giulia Forsythe

This excerpt from the High Potentials as High Learners journal by Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger further explains the term learning agility:

“To deal with change, organizations need to find and nurture those who are most facile in dealing with it. Identifying those who can learn to behave in new ways requires a different measurement strategy from those often employed, one that looks at the characteristics of the learning agile.”

This journal presents the relationship between leadership potential and learning agility.

According to Lombardo and Eichinger, a leader’s potential can’t be measured from what an individual can demonstrate.

Instead, they must have the ability to learn skills to perform in novel and challenging situations.

Learning from experience and being flexible in new environments is what brands the individual as high potential.

Therefore, learning agility is a complex cognitive process. It involves self-reflection, experimentation, and continuous improvement.

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The 9 Elements of Learning Agility

Thorndike Professor of Psychology at Columbia University Dr. W. Warner Burke identifies nine ways in which individuals demonstrate learning agility.

This is derived from four years of research.

1. Flexibility

Learning agile employees are open-minded. They view a situation through multiple angles so they can discover new strategies.

Instead of sticking to long-held assumptions in the workplace, they challenge the status quo and propose fresh solutions.

2. Speed

A learning agile employee identifies ideas that aren’t working and discards them. Quickly.

They don’t dwell on failure but instead accelerate ideas that work.

Don Shula, NFL coach for the Miami Dolphins, had a 24-hour rule.

He allowed his coaching staff, players and himself 24 hours to celebrate a victory or brood over a loss.

The next day, they’d put it all behind them and focus on the next game.

The Miami Dolphins is the only team to win the Super Bowl with a perfect season.

They completed an entire season undefeated, so Shula was onto something.

Don Shula coach for Miami Dolphins. Image: Zimbio

3. Performance Risk-Taking

Do you have an employee who seeks challenging roles and assignments?

Do they remain engaged throughout an unfamiliar task, adapting quickly to perform their tasks?

Do they effectively handle the stress brought on by uncertainty?

Then you’ve got a high-learning agile employee.

They view challenges as opportunities to learn and have fun.

Learning agile employees don’t just seek adventure for the thrill it provides; they take risks that open up opportunities.

They seek to fill up roles where failure is a possibility.

They know they acquire confidence by getting out of their comfort zone, which ultimately leads to success.

4. Interpersonal Risk-Taking

Learning agile individuals are open to people with differing opinions and backgrounds.

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They seek to understand others and learn from their input.

As a result, they can establish connections that drive learning and change.

They glean from their experiences and share what they’ve learned from their failures and mistakes.

Because they show true empathy, team members look up to them in times of crisis.

5. Experimenting

Learning agile employees push the limits of what they know so that they can learn new things.

You’ll catch them trying new approaches and ideas, and you’ll notice they have a high tolerance for failure.

6. Collaborating

Team members who have learning agility unearth find ways to work with others, especially if those team members have different backgrounds and perspectives.

Different viewpoints allow team members to come up with multiple solutions at work. This fast tracks progress and increase efficiency.

Learning agile team members share their skills and ideas and give others an equal opportunity to do the same.

Consequently, your business creates a culture of continuous learning.

7. Feedback Seeking

Learning agile employees are hungry for feedback. They view feedback as a gift even though it may make them uncomfortable.

Instead of focussing on the other person’s motivations, they look for growth opportunities in constructive criticism.

They use it to gain a deeper insight into themselves and other team members.

Employees with low learning agility give excuses or respond defensively.

They view feedback as a personal attack, not an opportunity to improve their performance.

8. Information Gathering

Learning agile employees constantly update their knowledge and expertise.

This enables them to remain current in shifting business landscapes.

9. Reflecting

In a busy work environment, it’s challenging to stop and look back at our experiences.

Learning agile employees periodically evaluate their performance on their own and with other team members.

It’s not enough to expose themselves to challenging experiences. For learning to happen, an employee must critically evaluate events and ask clarifying questions.

Once they draw insights from this introspection, they know what to do to ensure future success.

How Can I Nurture Learning Agility in My Employees?

Encourage Employees to Take Risks

Throw your employees out of their comfort zone so they can develop new skills and perspectives.

One of the best ways to do this is to use a learning management system that motivates your employees to learn.

A great LMS is World Manager.

Since it’s mobile-friendly, your staff can take the training at a time and place that’s convenient for them.

Courses are delivered in micro-chunks to make learning engaging and enable your employees to retain knowledge easily.

You can get real-time reports of an employee’s progress and get actionable insights to improve your business.

When employees are empowered with skills and tools, they take risks more readily.

To uphold a culture of collaboration and teamwork, encourage learning employees to share their progress.

That way, they can receive support when they get stuck and even build on their pre-existing skills.

Activate Employees’ Seeking Systems

According to Daniel M Cable, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School, we all have a human drive to learn and thrive.

In his Seeking Systems Podcast, Cable asserts that the brain wants to explore and be creative, not the fear systems that most companies employ to achieve efficiency and which get in the way.

For instance, withholding a bonus from an employee who won’t perform a task in ‘the right way’ discourages learning.

It creates anxiety and shuts down the part of the brain that’s responsible for creativity.

To fuel innovation and learning agile teams, consider Cable’s three levers to spike up employee seeking systems:

  • Give employees the freedom to experiment with different ideas and strategies
  • Show employees the impact of their efforts (for example, show your team the customer feedback after launching a new product)
  • Allow employees to demonstrate their best selves (including their different backgrounds, unique perspectives, and skills)

Boost Innovation

Encourage employees to bring new ideas at your brainstorm meetings even if your current strategies work.

It’s easier to use tried and tested approaches when you encounter challenges in a high-stress environment, but innovation can only happen if your team is willing to challenge the status quo.

Ask these questions during your next brainstorm meeting:

  • What’s holding us back from trying a different approach?
  • If we remove these obstacles, how would we approach this differently?
Co-workers project brainstorming
Image from Pexels

Conduct Debriefs with Your Team After Every Project

Reviewing events after they’ve happened enables your team to reflect and learn.

Ask these questions on your next debrief:

  • What happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • What worked?
  • What didn’t work?
  • What should we start doing to get desirable results next time?
  • What should we continue doing?
  • What should we stop doing to get better results next time?

Training your employees to acclimatize to the ever-changing business environment requires an adaptable LMS.

Would you like to help your employees thrive in moments of accelerated change? Ask for a demo.

Disclaimer: This information is meant to provide general guidelines and should be used as a reference. It may not take into account all relevant local, state or federal laws and is not a legal document. Neither the author nor World Manager will assume any legal liability that may arise from the use of this information.

The best companies use World Manager to train staff, maintain standards, and set the company up on the road to success.