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Landing on Our Feet: The Importance of Learning Agility in a World Turned Upside Down

Veronica Schmidt Harvey, PhD, Schmidt Harvey Consulting, LLC; and Kenneth P. De Meuse, PhD, De Meuse Leadership Group, LLC

Airbnb just announced a restructuring and layoff of 1,900 employees. A few weeks ago, one of the largest copper mining companies in the world (Freeport McMoRan) furloughed its entire Learning and Leadership Development team. In a recent survey, the National Federation of Independent Business reported that 92% of small employers have been adversely impacted by Covid-19. The coronavirus has turned the entire world upside down.

Although the acronym “VUCA” – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous – has been frequently used to describe the business conditions of our times, the pandemic has given it new and personal meaning. From working and leading remotely to homeschooling kids while staving off financial gloom – most of us are doing our best to “ride the dragon!”

During turbulent times, learning agility is key to adjusting to our new environment. The essence of learning agility is the ability to adapt to first-time, often tough situations by using a variety of strategies to nimbly learn from our experiences. Learning agility empowers us and enables us to grow from stretch experiences rather than be victims of them. Each of us is capable of becoming more learning agile, but developing this “muscle” requires willingness, effort, discipline, and resilience. The following are behaviors and strategies that are especially important to becoming more learning agile:

  • Mindful awareness:  Being mindful is not simply about meditation. It involves turning off our automatic filters, being purposefully aware, and accepting of what is going on in the present moment – what is going on around us, what we are thinking and feeling now. Mindfulness requires us to be fully steeped in reality and shift from System 1 (fast) to System 2 (slow) thinking. For many leaders who are biased for action, pausing to see things as they really are (without judgment) can be difficult.
  • Forecasting “what next”:  To respond with agility requires anticipation of capabilities that may be needed. For example, leaders should begin asking “What new leadership skills will I need to be effective in the coming weeks, months, and even years?”  This may mean doing research, regularly reading trade publications, talking with others, or brainstorming with the team.  
  • Curiosity and openness:  Although mindfulness and forecasting open the door to agile learning, curiosity and openness allow us to walk through it. Questions are catalysts to creativity, learning, and enabling the learning of others. Now may be a good time for leaders to ask themselves and their teams, “What are we learning from the current situation about our strengths and weaknesses? What new opportunities may result from the crisis we are going through?” It may also mean getting off the dance floor and into the balcony to consider how we are thinking in addition to what we are thinking about. The hardest part of learning can often be changing a deeply instilled mindset about how we believe things work. For example, do we need to question our beliefs that being engaged at work requires physical connection? Or that doing our best work requires being in an office building?
  • Courage, experimentation, and practice: Much like riding a rollercoaster, trying out something new can be both scary and exhilarating. We are neurologically wired to feel threatened when we face situations that are unfamiliar. Learning agility nearly always requires stepping to the very edge of our comfort zone, and often beyond it. Just as a new physical workout can leave us with sore muscles, learning may mean stretching to the point of discomfort. Learning often requires letting go of what has made us successful in the past in order to latch on to new ways of working. It’s okay to start small, practice deliberately, and experiment with different approaches until we find the approach that works best for us. It’s important to remember that learning in turbulent times will mean “getting comfortable being uncomfortable.”
  • Maintaining a learning mindset:  Central to learning agility is a belief that we can change and grow. A significant amount of research exists on the importance of a having growth mindset and self-efficacy to success. Those with a growth or learning mindset believe that change is a result of effort rather than static abilities. Those with a learning mindset view new experiences – and even mistakes – as opportunities to learn.  It is important to monitor our “self-talk” for messages such as “I’ll never be able to lead a team remotely” and replace them with more productive ones such as “What approach might work better next time?” or “It will take some practice to become skilled at facilitating virtual meetings.”
  • Asking for help and learning from others: We are often hesitant to ask for help. Leaders especially can fear looking weak if they don’t have all the answers. However, it can actually be a great strength to recognize the wisdom gained from others, as well as the mistakes that can be avoided by seeking advice. Most of us are flattered to be asked for guidance when the request is framed appropriately. For example: “Chris, I know you went through a crisis with your team a few months ago and came out fine. Can you share some of what you learned?”  We also underestimate how much we can learn simply by mindfully observing role models to determine the specific words, tone, timing, and body language that contribute to their effectiveness.
  • Seeking feedback: Seeking feedback is foundational to learning agility. Without regular feedback from diverse perspectives, it is difficult to know what we should start, stop, or continue. Asking for feedback can feel uncomfortable at first (for both the recipient and the giver).  However, once it becomes a habit, seeking feedback can seem as natural as checking the mirror after lunch to make sure none of your salad is stuck in your teeth! Asking for feedback need not be complicated; it can be as simple as calling or texting a colleague after a meeting and asking “What do you think went well? What did I do that worked best? What would you recommend I do differently next time?” Although sometimes our natural response is to get defensive if we hear something we disagree with or don’t like, it’s essential to respect the feedback as a gift if we expect to get more in the future.
  • Making time to reflect:  The key difference between an “experience” and a “learning experience” is whether we take the time to reflect on the lessons learned.  Preparatory reflection involves thinking ahead about how we are going to put a new capability into practice, considering what we did in the past and seeking out new frameworks or approaches to try. For example: “For our next team meeting, I’m going to focus on asking questions rather than telling the group what to do.” After-action reflection is important for determining what worked well or not-so-well and is best done daily (e.g. for a minute after an important meeting), weekly (e.g. “Where did I make progress in asking questions rather than telling?”), and longer term (e.g. “What are the most important leadership lessons I have learned from how I lead my team during the coronavirus quarantine?”). Reflection allows us to distill the lessons from our experience so that we can apply them in the future.
  • Resilience:  Being learning agile requires the root system of an oak and the flexibility of a willow! Clarity of purpose on why change is important can keep us grounded when times are tough. Having the structure of a learning plan can give us focus if it includes clear goals (e.g., become more effective at communicating the vision for our team in a way that is inspiring), action steps (e.g. observe role models, watch TED talks, seeking a coach, trying something different at each staff meeting), and success indicators (e.g. what will be seen, heard, experienced, or felt that indicates progress). Considering obstacles and preparing “if–then” statements can prime us to see opportunities to change our thoughts or behaviors.  For example, “IF I find myself talking too much in a meeting, THEN I will pause and ask a question to engage the rest of the group.” Having a social support system and enlisting a coach, mentor, or accountability partner can provide a critical lifeline when the learning gets challenging—and we must remember to celebrate along the way.

Becoming learning agile requires looking at life through a new lens, thinking about things differently, trying new behaviors, and oftentimes letting go of familiar approaches that had worked well in the past. It often means interacting with others in different ways. Inevitably, it requires courage, being resourceful, and picking ourselves up when things don’t go perfectly the first time.

Most of all, learning agility requires us to have confidence in ourselves and our ability to succeed during today’s unpredictable times. The following quote captures this belief: “A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because its trust is not on the branch but on its wings.” Rather than viewing today’s pandemic as a disruption in normal business operations that must be endured, we can choose to view it an opportunity to experiment, learn, and grow into a more effective leader, employee, family member, and member of the community.

Veronica and Ken are co-editors of the forthcoming SIOP Professional Practice Series Book The Age of Agility: Developing Learning Agile Organizations and Leaders to be published by Oxford University Press in 2021.

About the authors:

Dr. Schmidt Harvey

Dr. De Meuse

© 2020 Schmidt Harvey Consulting, LLC and De Meuse Leadership Group, LLC. Reprinted with Permission 

From the Learning Resources for Practitioners (LRP) Committee:

Do you have expertise to share to help practitioners and the larger business community adapt during COVID-19 crisis? Feel free to contact Kimberly Adams, LRP Committee Chair, at kadams6006@gmail.com to discuss your idea and submission details. Thanks!

Find more resources for adapting to work in the age of COVID-19 on SIOP’s new Remote Work page.

Find resources and advice on topics including work-life balance, worker well-being, managing remote teams, employee motivation and engagement, and organizational agility. New resources are being added on a regular basis.

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