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Want an Agile Organization? Start By Building Learning Agile Talent

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

Success in the future will depend on how effectively your talent is able to adapt and perform when confronted with unforeseen circumstances, dilemmas, crises, and complex problems.

A couple of years back I had the privilege of speaking on the topic of agile enterprises at a gathering of global tech leaders in Washington D.C. At lunch the day prior, I struck up a great conversation with the chief technology officer of a highly-respected non-profit that provides systems engineering, R&D, and IT support to government agencies. His organization is very serious about building an agile enterprise. In fact, they’ve brought together four separate streams of research to focus on it. The cross-functional team is addressing agility by looking closely at processes, structure, and design to name a few areas.

There are certainly many elements to address when building an agile organization. But what I’ve noticed when talking with leaders about agility is that too often the element that is either under-emphasized if not ignored altogether seems to be the talent element. That’s what makes the concept of learning agility so helpful in this context. As a proven, research-based construct, learning agility provides a vehicle to both identify and build the agility of arguably a company’s most valuable asset, its people.

Learning agility has emerged as a differentiating predictor to help determine who will be successful in new, first-time challenges. Why? People who are learning agile can easily shed established ways of doing things, gain new skills more readily and carry those skills forward to perform successfully in a diverse mix of situations, especially first-time situations.

In a VUCA world, these characteristics are increasingly important. Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Mondelez, puts it this way, "Learning agility has always been one of our most valued leadership skills, but in a turbulent world it is essential to success.” (Chicago Times, February 2015).

Where does learning agility come from?

As it turns out, despite the ‘learning’ in the name, learning agility’s roots are squarely planted in leadership research, not learning theory. Researchers Drs. Mike Lombardo and Bob Eichinger first articulated learning agility after intense study of two major streams of research that sought to answer the questions: What behaviors are most important for executive success? And why do some executives derail? Lombardo and Eichinger’s research found that successful leaders were ones that seek out diverse experiences and amass multiple lessons from them. These lessons then manifest as varied and expansive ways of looking at problems and coming up with creative solutions.

Multiple studies over the years have clearly shown the impact of learning agility. People high in learning agility are recognized as having the most potential for advancement, get promoted faster and more often than their peers, advance closest to the top, and achieve greater success after promotion. One study even showed that learning agility predicted potential to succeed at a rate 18 times greater than looking at past performance alone. As to organizational performance, a Korn Ferry study found that companies with the greatest rates of highly learning agile executives produced 25% higher profit margins compared to peer companies.

Spotting Learning Agility

Because learning agility comes to life through behaviors, you can observe it in others and begin to recognize the characteristics in yourself. And, because it’s behavior-based, learning agility can be developed.

When considering the baseline agility of your organization’s talent, start with some informal sleuthing:

  • How do they deal with difficult, thorny, unprecedented problems?

  • Do they like to experiment? Are they comfortable with change?

  • How readily can they flex their approach to different people, different contexts?

  • Can they deliver results in tough, first-time situations?

  • Do they recognize their own strengths and weaknesses and proactively seek feedback?

In Part 3 of this series we’ll be turning the lens to you and exploring how you can start applying a learning agility mindset and agile behaviors to help you not just navigate but thrive in a VUCA world.

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