Innovative, continually learning and adapting, ready to take risk, able to deal with complexity. Those are of some of the attributes of strategic leadership. Combined together, these attributes can also be referred to as learning agility.
In their white paper Learning About Learning Agility, Adam Mitchinson and Robert Morris report that researchers define learning agility as being “continually able to jettison skills, perspectives and ideas that are no longer relevant, and learn new ones that are.” Given the complexity of our environment in higher education, this has never been more important. In fact, research over the last 20 years shows that the most successful leaders are those who are comfortable with uncertainty and sudden change and have the ability to learn and adapt.
Easily said, right? But how can you break down learning agility into concrete behaviors that are easy to employ?
Mitchinson and Morris do just that. They write about research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and Teachers College, Columbia University, where researchers identified four behaviors that enable learning agility and one that derails it.
They describe the four learning-agility “enablers” as:
Innovating: Questioning the status quo and challenging long-held assumptions with the goal of discovering new and unique ways of doing things. Learning-agile individuals generate new ideas through their ability to view issues from multiple angles.
Performing: Learning from experience occurs most often when overcoming an unfamiliar challenge. To learn from challenges, an individual must remain present and engaged, handle the stress brought on by ambiguity and adapt quickly in order to perform. This requires observation and listening skills, and the ability to process data quickly.
Reflecting: Learning-agile people look for feedback and eagerly process information to better understand their own assumptions and behavior. As a result they are insightful about themselves, others and problems.
Risking: Learning-agile people are pioneers–they venture into unknown territory and put themselves “out there” to try new things. They take “progressive risk” –not thrill-seeking, but risk that leads to opportunity. They volunteer for jobs and roles where success is not guaranteed, where failure is a possibility. They stretch themselves outside their comfort zones.
The learning-agility “derailer” is:
Defending. Individuals who remain closed or defensive when challenged or given critical feedback tend to be low in learning agility. By contrast, high learning-agile individuals seek feedback, process it and adapt based on their newfound understanding of themselves, situations and problems.
So given these enablers and derailer, what can you do to increase your learning agility? Mitchinson and Morris recommend some helpful strategies below:
Innovating. Seek out new solutions. Repeatedly ask yourself, “What else?” “What are 10 more ways I could approach this?” “What are several radical things I could try here?”
Performing. Seek to identify patterns in complex situations. Find the similarities between current and past projects. Cultivate calm through meditation and other techniques. Enhance your listening skills – listen instead of simply (and immediately) reacting.
Reflecting. Regularly seek out real input. Ask, “What are three or four things I or we could have done better here?” Make sure the questions are still open-ended – that will encourage colleagues to speak up.
Risking. Look for “stretch assignments,” where the probability of success isn’t a given.
Avoid defending. Acknowledge your failures (perhaps from those stretch assignments) and capture the lessons you’ve learned from them
Over this next week I challenge you to explore how you can increase your own learning agility. Pick one thing to focus on and see what happens. For my part, I’m going to focus on listening more intently before reacting. What about you?