Would you call yourself a lifelong learner? The answer is almost certainly yes. And I’m sure if you asked your colleagues and friends, you’d receive a chorus of yeses in response. Throughout life we continue to acquire skills, knowledge, attitudes and behaviours through formal and non-formal learning and day-to-day experiences.
But how many of us consciously adopt the habits of a lifelong learner? And why is it so important, now more than ever, to do so?
The magic happens when our recognition of the importance of learning is teamed with the curiosity and adaptability to actually pursue learning and re-learning as part of our professional and personal practice. And to then deploy that learning in new ways.
This is learning agility and it’s critical to the ability of individuals and organisations to thrive in the present and post-COVID-19 world.
Why do we need learning agility today?
Learning agility is often described as ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.’ This capacity to continue to think and act through uncertainty was important even before the COVID-19 crisis. Our research showed that companies with the greatest rates of highly learning agile executives produced 25% higher profit margins compared with peer companies.
In the advent of the pandemic, learning agility has emerged as the critical leadership competency. It’s the key enabler for leaders that hope to grow, pivot, or transform their organisations to remain relevant.
In the current climate, leaders must be constantly scanning their surroundings, not just to see what has changed but to spot new challenges, risks, and opportunities. They also need to identify gaps in knowledge, skills, and capabilities, and act swiftly to close them.
It’s learning agility that not only fuels this relentless curiosity but also what enables leaders to channel it into action within their own organisational context. It also provides the energy to then reset and go on that journey again and again.
The five characteristics of learning agility
Learning agility is not so much about what someone has accomplished. It’s about what they have the potential to accomplish, especially when faced with new challenges. And it’s comprised of five key characteristics that combine to determine an individual’s learning agility:
- Mental Agility — how comfortable are they in dealing with complexity?
- People Agility — are they skilled communicators who can work with diverse people?
- Change Agility — do they like to experiment? Are they unafraid of being at the forefront of change?
- Results Agility — can they deliver results in first-time situations?
- Self-Awareness — do they recognise their own strengths and weaknesses?
Three ways to boost learning agility
Some people are innately learning agile, while others are less so. Either way, everyone can develop their level of learning agility.
HR has a role to play here in facilitating learning agility development in the organisation. Individuals at all levels of the organisation need support and feedback to understand their baseline agility, as well as coaching and workplace opportunities to grow their capacity.
At an individual level, there are many things you can do. But there are three actions in particular that can be integrated into your daily life straight away to improve learning agility.
Be curious: agile learners don’t just default to the ‘same old’ solutions that worked in the past. They actively seek to disrupt the status quo, constantly seeking to get better and to learn new skills and ways of behaving. At every opportunity, ask why do we do it this way? Can it be improved?
Take risks: accepting risk as the gateway to opportunity is essential to learning agility – even when it can sometimes also lead to failure. Take on a new challenge that scares you; find something that is meaningful but not so important that failure will have serious personal consequences. Most importantly, tell others what you are doing – and ask for their help and support.
Reflect: Taking the time to reflect is what enables agile learners to process and learn from experience. Ask questions of yourself and others regarding the things you could have done differently and better. Find someone you trust to give you open and honest feedback and challenge that person to do so. Resist the temptation to explain your actions or make excuses and instead ask clarifying questions.
Implementing these three actions is the first step in being that lifelong learner we all aspire to be.
How learning agile are you? Take this brief test to learn more about your baseline learning agility.