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Learning Agility: Needed Now More Than Ever

Alisa Cohn wrote an article, “Agility In A Time Of Fragility,” for Forbes this month about a book she read entitled Flex: the Art and Science of Leadership in a Changing World by Jeffrey Hull. I am always attracted to titles that include the word “agility” because of our work with the Burke Learning Agility assessments. I wonder how each author is going to define agility and, once we look beneath the surface, what will agility involve.

Hull is described by Cohn as a coach with the Institute of Coaching, which is associated with the Harvard Medical School.  He is a coach, researcher, and author. The premise of his book, based on his research and coaching practice, is that there are six practices leaders need to succeed: Flexibility, Intentionality, Emotional Intelligence, Realness, Collaboration, and Engagement. This is certainly a good list and at least two practices, Flexibility and Collaborating, are in line with Burke’s Learning Agility Dimensions.

Several of Hull’s practices are about the “what” of leading and not the “how.” You need to pay attention to the “what” − things like Realness, Engagement, and Intentionality – just knowing what they are does not contribute to “how” you need to go about leading. Even Emotional Intelligence (EI) is a “what.”

I am a big proponent of EI. In fact, we are looking for an opportunity to do research using a measure of EI along with the Burke Learning Agility Inventory. We believe there are relationships or connections between Learning Agility and EI. Without data to support our belief of a relationship though, it is purely supposition.

Being self-aware, which is the essence of EI, supports agility, but there is not something a leader “does” that behaviorally contributes to their effectiveness. Hull’s practice of Realness sounds awfully close to EI. When you have EI, you know who you are, and your behavior comes across as genuine.

The two places where Hull and Burke would be aligned is in terms of Flexibility and Collaborating. Hull calls it Collaboration, but I am assuming one needs to Collaborate to achieve Collaboration. Flexibility is especially important to learning agility and is seen as one of the drivers. For Burke, Flexibility is being open to new ideas and solutions. It is being able to change the framework you use to describe a situation or series of events.

How is Burke different in how he views leadership and agility than Hull? First, agility is not just about moving quickly and easily, it is about learning. Specifically, learning agility as defined by Burke, is about finding yourself in a situation where you have never been before, you do not know what to do, and you figure it out.

There is no question about the critical importance of learning agility in these unprecedented and fragile times. Burke has identified nine dimensions that describe leaders who are more learning agile, as opposed to Hull’s six practices. While I said that Hull’s practices were a combination of “what” and “how,” all nine of Burke’s dimensions are examples of how someone demonstrates learning agility.

We mentioned Collaborating and Flexibility as the two dimensions that seem to align with Hull’s practices. Burke’s other dimensions are Speed, Performance Risk-Taking, Interpersonal Risk-Taking, Experimenting, Feedback Seeking, Information Gathering, and Reflecting. There are a total of 38 items or behavioral descriptions that complete Burke’s definition of learning agility. The initial research behind the Burke assessments took five years to complete. That commitment to research continues today.

When we are working with an organization, they will ask us if certain dimensions are more important than others. They are all important. There are two dimensions, Speed and Flexibility, which are described as the drivers of learning agility. They “underpin” the other seven. There are four descriptors for seven of the dimensions. Speed and Flexibility each have five descriptors. Given their number of descriptors makes their contribution to the overall score a little more.

I have been giving some thought to whether some descriptors might be more relevant in times of fragility. These are not in order of importance, but my top 10 descriptors to bring to a pandemic, categorized under their associated dimension, are:

Flexibility

  • Propose innovative solutions

Speed

  • Acquire new skills and knowledge rapidly
  • React well to unexpected problems

Experimenting

  • Try different approaches

Performance Risk-Taking

  • Engage in ambiguous tasks
  • Embrace work that is risky

Interpersonal Risk-Taking

  • Bring up tough issues with others
  • Ask for help

Feedback Seeking

  • Ask others how to improve performance

Reflecting

  • Reflect on how to be more effective.

Whether your focus is on Hull’s six practices or Burke’s nine Learning Agility Dimensions, one thing is certain – leaders need to not only comprehend the methods, but put them into action, along with genuine energy, in order to be truly successful in their endeavors. Understanding the relationship between EI and learning agility will be an ongoing point of study for me both personally and professionally. Discovering how the two correlate will ultimately make advancements in the way we select the right candidates for open positions and constructing the team that best suits our company’s needs.

About the Author

David Hoff is the COO and EVP of Leadership Development for E.A.S.I-Consult®E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E.A.S.I-Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring advisement. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I-Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.