Enablers and deraliers of learning agility
Although agile organizations often change, they do not pursue change for change’s sake but for competitive advantage
In a rapidly changing business environment, what happens when we don’t keep pace with the change? Answer seems to be obvious. Actually if we look around, several of the fortune 500 companies which created buzz just a decade ago have disappeared from the list today. Many times, explanations given for the downfall are complacency and not keeping pace with the changing business scenario. However, a commonsensical question teases the mind, “Why a company doing so well, did not want to do well always and continue to be on the top forever?”As organizations/business persons, we all want to excel, but why become content and not change for better? In fact, more rational reason for downfall seems to be organizations not reading the future trends carefully and hence, not preparing proactively to tackle the future vis-a-vis the competition that has done it. So, being alert to new business developments, asking questions such as ‘what if’ to tackle any unforeseen situation and constantly learning new ways to adapt to changing needs, market situations etc., are the differentiators between successful and not so successful organizations, effective and not so effective leaders. The management literature refers to this ability as “Learning agility”, that is, learning in anticipation to deal with new situations and applying the learning appropriately to deliver better performance.
Learning agility, therefore, is not just the ability to change but also the capability to acquire as well as transfer knowledge and experience suitably from one situation to new situations in a timely, effective, and sustainable way when required. In other words, learning in agile organizations, people continuously learn from the experiences they go through, adapt, apply and grow. For sure, these things will not be possible if organizations don’t reflect. Hence, reflection becomes the hallmark characteristic of learning agility. The point to be noted here is that although agile organizations often change, they do not pursue change for change’s sake. They pursue it for competitive advantage.
Research has proven that organizations/leaders, who demonstrate the same acquired behaviors in all situations without appreciating the nuances of changing scenario, tend to fail more often as compared to those who apply learning from one situation to another after diagnosing the context. Good news is that learning agility is not an innate skill; it can be learnt and refined with sustained effort. Some of the enablers in cultivating and refining learning agility are:
- Curiosity: When we are curious about something, our mind expects and anticipates new ideas related to it. In fact, studies show that by being inquisitive, we are able to see new opportunities which are normally not obvious otherwise. Most importantly, when we are curious, we don’t take things for granted. We normally question the assumptions. And this mindset enables us to explore new possibilities. It helps us to navigate and work through complex and ambiguous situations discovering solutions by making fresh connections. Inquisitive leaders and organizations pay special attention to make sense of what is going on in the environment.
- Divine Discontentment: People with constructive dissatisfaction are positively restless and hence very inquisitive. They hardly feel satisfied as they believe there is always a scope for improvement. Challenging status quo and striving for variety is way of life for them. They believe in experimentation and trying out new ideas without getting unnecessarily scared of failure. In fact, they believe failure is the stepping stone for success and therefore do not get overwhelmed by unfamiliarity of the situation. People/organizations with positive tension take risks as well as invest significant effort in continuous learning and improvement, never resting on their laurels believing that they have arrived in life.
- Adaptability: The third important enabler of learning agility is adaptability. The critical thing here is to acknowledge the fact that the change has occurred and we will have to let go some of the success formula of past whether it is dealing with people, cultures, competition, internal or external environment or running the business. People with adaptability are quick in creating space to learn new things by unlearning some of the old ways of doing things. They are confident and realistically optimistic in making things happen. Optimism also helps lift the morale of others around to be nimble by creating an environment of positivity and buoyancy to reach desired outcome in legitimate way.
- Hunger for Success: Intensity to succeed using ethical means irrespective of past failure or success gives sufficient indication whether an organization or person can be termed learning agile or not. Hunger for whatsoever reason – stirs us into action and hence learning new things. As continuous learning is important for agility, humility is essential for learning. So failure should not lead to timidity and accomplishment should not breed arrogance. In both the cases, learning suffers and person/organization loses out. Maintaining cool while having aggressive business strategy helps achieve success. But, this requires tremendous self-control and a very positive mindset. To be successful, stay hungry and be open to learning from all the sources like crazy.
- Understanding Self: Last but not the least, if we are able to understand our own needs, habits, desires, strengths, weaknesses, and all other things that makes us tick, we will not only be effective but will also help others become more productive. It is generally said the more you know about yourself, the better you are at adapting life changes that suit your needs. The more we pay attention to our feelings and how we work, the better we'll understand why we do the things we do. But the question arises ‘is it easy to recognize our needs/wants/emotions?”In most cases, this takes a lot of effort as it’s very hard to look at oneself in an objective manner, but it's always worth a shot. The point here is to question our approach, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions. One can also look at getting critical feedback about self from some trustworthy friends. This way, you see yourself from someone else's perspective and gain a little extra insight into your blind spot. The important thing here is to have courage to reflect and consequently act on the information to develop new skills and use them in combination with existing skills and experience, to derive new solutions.
While enablers pave the way to become learning agile, one has to be cautious of derailers that may pull down the performance drastically. Some of the derailers we must watch out for are:
- Complacency: One should be particularly extra careful after a significant accomplishment as many times success leads to arrogance and therefore complacency blocking learning agility.
- Shielding: Don’t justify your behaviors to other. Being comfortable while receiving uncomfortable feedback leads to learning, on the contrary defensiveness becomes mental block in getting feedback resulting into losing learning points shared by others.
- Delaying: Ho jayega (it will happen) attitude is about pushing things which are important but not urgent to the end of ‘To-do list’. A habit of this sort leads to learning paralysis, a syndrome which is noticed in people who wait for an activity to become urgent before being carried out. In this state, doing the activity takes precedence and learning from it through dissection and reflection gets a back seat.
Obviously, one should strengthen the enablers and weaken the derailers to enhance learning agility. Remember, while all the above discussed enablers are important, what is crucial is being judicious and not excessively using these enablers to be learning agile to make the workplace high performing. In a research conducted by Korn Ferry in 2013, it was found that companies with greatest rates of highly learning agile executives produced 25 percent higher profit margins compared with peer companies. In another study, it was also revealed that learning agility is the leading predictor of success in leadership roles. And therefore, to have a definitive edge over competition, individuals/organizations must focus on making learning agility a habit.