Learning agile people can process new information and situations faster than others and adjust on the fly to changing conditions. Hiring these individuals allows companies to be more responsive, flexible, and competitive.
An old 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, and apparently, learning agility is critical to success.
Learning agility is openness to information and the ability to gain and apply insights. People with this trait often follow a non-traditional path and are able to 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 recently collaborated with researchers from Teachers College at Columbia University to assess the value that 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.
Learning Agility Can Be, Well, Learned
As project team leaders or project managers, there is much you can do to foster learning agility in yourself and in your organization. Here are five tips from Green Peak Partners.
Innovate: Repeatedly ask, "What else? What are 10 different ways I could approach this? What are several radical things I could try here?" You might not actually execute all the ideas you come up with, but you shouldn’t dismiss anything out of hand.
Trust your intuition: Always look for a pattern. For instance, think through the similarities between current and past projects and the common thread that ties various aspects of your business together. Cultivate calm through meditation, and learn to listen before immediately reacting in a stressful situation.
Become more reflective: Explore "what-ifs" and alternative histories for projects with which you’ve been involved. Never pass up and 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 take action 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. Learning and exploration, rather than positive business outcomes, should be the main goal.
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.
Audaciousness is Good for Business
Remember that learning agility IS something we should be cultivating. Yes, learning agile people don’t always have the best reputations in their companies. Because they are bolder, their projects may fail at a higher rate than average. Individuals with learning agility constantly challenge the status quo and may appear “rough around the edges” to more diplomatic, laissez-faire colleagues. Their brazenness can be downright off-putting. However, they are usually high performers, and behind every wildly successful business innovation is at least one learning agile person. Their value is undeniable and the more of them we have working for us at all levels, the better off we’ll be.