In the last ten years, learning agility – the ability to analyze and understand new business situations and problems – has become essential for all leaders, no matter the size of their company or team. Why? Because many of the skills and expertise, on which leaders relied in the past, can quickly become outmoded in today’s uncertain world. Based on our work with some of the country’s top executives, entrepreneurs, and others, we have found that the following four practices deepens learning agility:
- Be curious
- Choose growth over comfort
- Resist defensiveness
It may be hard to admit, but many of us lack curiosity. Even when it comes to something as simple as listening to a colleague talk about a problem, we may barely listen before making assumptions about their situation, then interrupting prematurely to present what we think is a clever solution. But when we don’t listen, we don’t learn. We don’t realize that our thoughts about a situation might lead to a more effective solution if we stayed in curious mode for a while longer. Consider these scenarios:
You see a member of your team approach a task in a completely different way from how you did when you were in her position. Instead of judging her approach as wrong or inefficient, you call on curiosity. You ask her about her approach, and how it benefits her and the team’s overall results. As a result of your dialogue, you realize that your team member has developed a best practice you and she can share with others.
You notice in the news that there is a lot of talk about AI (artificial intelligence,) a topic you know nothing about. You work in a traditional organization that doesn’t use AI in its systems. But you imagine that in the future, AI will become part of every organization’s business processes. So, you sign up for an introductory webinar about AI, start reading about it, and ask colleagues what they think about it.
Choose Growth Over Comfort
Learning-agile people are willing to be uncomfortable in pursuit of growth. They take “progressive risks.” They don’t pursue risk because it’s thrilling, but because they can learn to identify new opportunities. Learning-agile people volunteer for jobs and roles where success is not guaranteed and failure is a real possibility. They stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones in a continuous cycle of learning and confidence-building that ultimately leads to success.
Don’t wait to feel comfortable before deciding to act in a way that helps you grow. To practice choosing growth over comfort, find something to do that is meaningful and makes you uncomfortable but is not so important that failure will have serious personal consequences. Accept the discomfort you feel as an inevitable part of doing something new. Let others know what you are doing to help you deal with the usual pain of behaving differently and ask for their help and support.
It can be hard to avoid feeling defensive when someone criticizes or challenges you. Self-preservation has deep roots in the human brain. But there is a difference between your performance and your identity. You may make mistakes, but you are not your mistakes. You may feel negative emotions about making a mistake, but you are not your emotions. Learn from those emotions, but don’t let them drive you.
To practice non-defensiveness, view feedback as a gift. Regardless of someone’s motivations for giving you feedback, their input always provides an opportunity to learn more about yourself. We all have blind spots, and there is usually at least a grain of truth in others’ feedback. So, when someone offers feedback, take a breath. Resist the temptation to defend your behavior to them or preserve your self-esteem by making excuses in your head. When you hear feedback, ask yourself, “What can I learn from what I am hearing?”
The fourth learning agility practice is to experiment. Many of us, especially high achievers, tend to be impatient. When dealing with a problem, we often choose the first or most obvious solution rather than considering whether it is indeed the optimal course. So, for each problem you face, make time to try out various new approaches. Also, encourage yourself and others to experiment with “wild and crazy” ideas. Experimenting with several options may seem inefficient or time-consuming, but it allows you to discover new ways of doing things that can produce better results in the long term. When facing a challenge ask yourself:
- How would I usually deal with a situation like this? What are the drawbacks to adopting the usual approach?
- What could be keeping me from trying a new approach to this situation?
- How could I overcome the constraints holding me back from experimenting with some new approaches?
- What two or three new ideas could I try out to deal with this situation?
Cultivate Learning Agility in Those You Lead
Strengthening your own learning agility is no doubt important. But as with all leadership essentials, you are also responsible for encouraging learning agility in those around you. Fostering a culture of learning in the team or organization you lead amplifies the positive impact of learning under challenging circumstances. Ask yourself:
- What kind of learning opportunities do I currently offer to members of my team or organization?
- What opportunities could I provide to encourage others to strengthen their learning agility?
Many leaders hang their hats on being experts when it comes to effective leadership. In most organizational settings, people who know a lot are rewarded for their expertise through promotions, bonuses, or the satisfaction of knowing that they have superstar reputations. But in today’s VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous,) expertise has an alarmingly short half-life. In the face of unprecedented challenges—whether organizational or societal—leadership will increasingly depend not on what leaders know but on what leaders do when they don’t know what to do
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