Now that we know how to measure learning agility, it’s time to apply it to support development. Here’s where to start.
By David Hoff
In his TalentQ piece “Where Are All the Agile Leaders?” W. Warner Burke, Ph.D., wrote about his work researching and defining learning agility. If step one was introducing the world to learning agility, then step two is showing how it can be put to practical use in organizations. It’s time to take that step.
Building on the work of University of Michigan professor D. Scott DeRue, who identified the learning agility dimensions of speed and flexibility, Burke pinpointed seven others in his article: performance risk taking, interpersonal risk taking, collaborating, information gathering, feedback seeking, experimenting, and reflecting.
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Burke and DeRue differentiated between learning agility and ability. While ability consists of horsepower or intelligence, agility is the versatility to access capabilities for solving problems in situations in which you don’t know what to do. Ability is certainly important—to a point. But then agility steals the show.
You can have the capability, but not the interest, to demonstrate it. Context affects the degree to which agility is demonstrated. Some contexts or environments support learning agility, and others stifle it. Lastly, defensiveness is the enemy of learning agility. Once the “buts” start, the gift of feedback stops being given.
So how do you then apply learning agility to support development? By beginning with selection and continuing through new employee orientation, training and leadership development, performance management and development, and coaching.
The data collected from these individually focused efforts can be aggregated to promote decision-making and action at the team, department, division, and even organization levels. I’d like to focus on three applications using learning agility as part of the solution: orientation, coaching, and succession planning.
Application #1: Orientation
It’s been well documented that new employees decide whether they’re going to stay with their employer within their first 90 days of employment. Problem is, most organizations do a poor job of engaging their new employees on day one, failing to tell them, “We want you,” “We feel honored that you selected us,” and “We want this to be a mutually beneficial relationship.”
I’m not talking about the balloons and company T-shirt. I’m suggesting that, from the jump, we share with our new employees the information we learned during the selection process, including any testing and structured interview results.
At a high level, we should tell them, “This is why we selected you.” It’s also a great time to say, “Here are a few things we found during the selection process that we think could be strengthened.”
Imagine if an employee heard this on the first day of their new job: “As part of our session today, we’re going to ask you about your learning agility. We’re going to talk about what learning agility is, along with the information you provided us. We’re going to put together your selection information with your learning agility results and you’re going to sit with your supervisor and talk about your first 6 to 12 months here, as well as some projects we would like you to undertake.”
Or this: “Most importantly, we want to talk with you about those projects in the context of areas we think you can improve, along with the learning agility dimensions that can be strengthened.”
This conveys that you’re glad to have your new employee on board, you want to engage them as quickly as possible, and their continuing development with the company begins now. Not a bad opening message, right?
Application #2: Coaching
Companies approach coaching in a variety of ways. In this example, we’re talking about skilled or certified people (internal or external) who are working with a group of predetermined high-potentials. The coaches will meet with their high-potentials over the course of 6 months either on a regular schedule, or around key events or projects in the HiPos’ lives.
The engagement will begin with data collection. This could consist of a cognitive ability test; a personality test; a competency 360 questionnaire (if the company has one); a series of interviews with some combination of the boss, direct reports, and peers; or any of the three ways of collecting information on the person’s learning agility (asking them, observing them, or testing them).
This information will then be combined into an individual report, which the coach will share with the high-potential. The conversation that ensues is for the high-potential to understand the information, and if anything is factually incorrect, then the coach would correct that.
From that point, the coach and the high-potential would schedule a meeting with the HiPo’s supervisor. The purpose? For all three individuals to agree on the objectives of the coaching engagement. They’ll agree on the timing of a “close-out” meeting, where they review the degree to which the coaching objectives have been accomplished. The high-potential can share with the boss what he learned from the assessment report.
The conversation should include what the high-potential’s performance objectives are for the coming year. Ideally, the discussion would include, at a high-dimension level, their learning agility strengths and development areas. You want to talk about the high-potential’s development areas. This will be a focus of the coaching meetings, and something we want the supervisor to know and support.
Let’s say the high-potential employee needs to successfully launch a new product and gain 1 percent market share in the next 12 months. He’s going to need the help of many support groups to get this done. His learning agility information indicates he’s high in speed, but low in reflecting, feedback seeking, collaborating, and interpersonal risk taking.
In the meeting with the coach, the employee is getting ready to conduct a new product kickoff meeting. They talk about how he can include some of the learning agility information to ensure a more successful launch. The HiPo created a list of all the groups that needed to be included in the launch, met with them, and collected input on what needed to be done and whether he had missed anyone. That added a few people to his original list.
He and the coach talk about how he’s going to announce and build feedback seeking and reflecting into his ongoing monthly meeting with the product launch team. But prior to the next monthly product launch meeting, the high-potential tells his coach that one of the support groups hasn’t honored its agreement. The HiPo and the coach then talk about how to approach this person and get his support in the future. That’s interpersonal risk taking.
The coach and high-potential continue to iterate before and after launch meetings, then conclude with a close-out meeting with the supervisor. This last meeting is mostly a formality, though; after all, the boss has been observing the HiPo’s progress over the previous 6 months.
Application #3: Succession Planning
When organizations are trying to prepare for future openings in critical jobs due to promotions, retirements, and voluntary and involuntary turnover, the people being reviewed haven’t previously done the job being discussed. As we look at candidates for an open position, we need to look at what they’ve done (performance) and what they might do (potential).
In this case, many companies use an assessment tool called a 9 Box, where one side is performance (the X axis in a matrix from low to high) and the other is potential (the Y axis from low to high). These organizations do a great job in describing past performance, but struggle with how to measure potential and, as a result, sometimes use it interchangeably with performance.
But loop in learning agility and now you can measure potential using the DeRue/Burke dimensions. Potential can be quantified and plotted from 0 to 100 percent on the Y axis. This, along with the performance information on the X axis, will array your talent across the matrix.
If you want to better understand the needs of a candidate from the potential perspective, you’d start by looking at their lowest dimension scores. Let’s say on the performance side, you realize this person has never had an international assignment. The lowest ratings on potential or learning agility are in the areas of flexibility, performance risk taking, and collaborating. Your task is to then integrate the learning agility dimensions with the international assignment.
Typically in a succession planning situation, that candidate is assigned a mentor. The mentor incorporates into his or her discussions how the overall assignment is going, as well as how the candidate is addressing the learning agility dimensions involved.
The mentor is also responsible for reporting back to the succession planning group how the candidate has performed on that particular assignment, and whether he’s now ready for a bigger role.
Learning agility can be a powerful tool in your talent management toolbox. When leveraged properly, it’ll help you develop your people—and help them optimize their performance and unlock their full potential.
David Hoff is chief operating officer and executive vice president of leadership development at EASI Consult, where he leads organization transformation projects utilizing assessment and development expertise. He spent 17 years at Anheuser-Busch Companies, Inc. in various positions, including director of international human resources.