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Fresh Cut: A Learning Agility Imperative for a VUCA World

Why Learning Agility will continue to stand out as a key characteristic of leader success in the future.

When I first wrote this blog in 2015, Brian Cornell had just taken the helm at Target, in what was then a rocky period for the company. Now, here we are in 2024 and the business environment is seismically more complex, ambiguous, and volatile. In his tenure, Cornell has grappled with navigating the pandemic, walking the return-to-work tightrope (especially here in Minneapolis given Target’s downtown headquarters), battled runaway inflation and inventory shrinkage, and made the tough choice to close stores in several markets due to thefts from organized retail crime. Not to mention getting caught in the cross hairs of America’s culture wars.

Who could have foreseen some of these realities? Would the playbook of Cornell’s past successes and strategies have been useful in tackling these new challenges? Because these phenomena are unprecedented, it got me thinking: how might Cornell and leaders like him equip themselves to be relentlessly agile in the face of churn and disruption? One way is for these leaders to activate the underlying principles from lessons gained through their past experiences and apply those to this whole new playbook, one which is being written in real time. Leaders who do this well demonstrate Learning Agility.

In my work with clients and researchers in recent years, I’ve seen the power of Learning Agility as an attribute and set of skills to help leaders thrive no matter the headwinds. Remember, when you think of the organization’s potential to perform in these new, ambiguous, VUCA situations, what has been accomplished in the past isn’t as important as how effectively the organization and its leaders will be able to handle, adapt, and perform when confronted with unforeseen circumstances, dilemmas, crises, and complex problems going forward. Because learning agile leaders have a stockpile of solutions, approaches, and ideas, they can more easily pivot to meet new demands that are critical to sustained business growth.

Here’s my original blog from 2015. Let me know if any of this resonates with you given what we’re all experiencing right now…

Note: While 'VUCA' may not be a new buzzword its relevance to describe the business environment today and in the future has never been higher.

Earlier this month I was driving into downtown Minneapolis when I heard a radio news segment about Target’s annual fall employee meeting. Brian Cornell, CEO of Target, delivered an upbeat message to the 13,000 troops gathered there. Of the entire transcript of Cornell’s speech, the newscaster homed in on one particular statement Cornell made, relative to the recent restructuring at Target that hit its headquarters hometown of Minneapolis particularly hard. In Cornell’s words: “It’s going to allow us to be more agile, to make quicker decisions and unlock growth.”

After making a quick route change (having been stuck in traffic in past years when the mass of Target employees decked out in their red and tan dispersed after the meeting concluded), I started to reflect on Cornell’s statement and was struck by how common this sentiment seems to be for CEOs now. This theme of a challenging growth environment and the need for organizations and the talent that comprises them to be agile has been a consistent theme in my conversations with senior leaders. Among the things leaders have been sharing of late:

“We can’t run the business the way we have in the past, but our people don’t have capacity to adapt rapidly.”

“Change is the new normal but we lack organizational capability to manage it effectively.”

“Our people struggle to be nimble; things are going to be ambiguous, that’s the reality.”

“Innovation is key to our growth strategy so we need to attack problems with fresh eyes, fresh thinking.”

Any of this sound familiar? The reality is that the business environment today is one where external forces, in the market and the world in general, will continue to exert pressure on companies, making it increasingly difficult to achieve sustained competitive advantage or hold the title ‘market leader’ for long.

One term I’ve found that helps sum up the characteristics of this challenging business environment is VUCA. Coined by the U.S. military in the 1990s and now part of the general business lexicon, a VUCA environment is one where volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are widely prevalent. For the vast majority of businesses now, stability and predictability has all but vanished, and VUCA is the new normal.

So how can organizations maintain a growth trajectory in a VUCA world? Naturally, given this VUCA environment, there isn’t one single, simple answer. What there is - as Brian Cornell points out – is a pressing need for agility. But how can you pinpoint agility in someone (outside of a ‘gut’ feel, not the most helpful)? Or is it something a person is just born with? The good news is that there is already a sound, well-researched method to not only spot agile characteristics in someone but help them develop the agility they need to achieve peak performance for themselves and for the business. It’s called Learning Agility. People who are learning agile make fresh connections, are resourceful in the face of change, and above all, learn from their experiences. This is why learning agility has become a battle cry for businesses who face significant growth headwinds. Learning agility provides an answer to the question: How do you know whether the talent in your organization has the qualities to adapt and learn, and ultimately succeed in an ever-changing market?

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