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Dr. William Garner was asked to be a guest contributor to E.A.S.I-Consult’s® newsletter.  His learning agility research resulted in a dissertation, which was the final qualification for his doctoral degree.  In this article, he examines learning agility as it may relate to people in Manager and Project Manager roles.  This study’s small sample size makes it difficult to generalize these results to the Project Manager (PM) role in general. The findings, however, are interesting, give us food for thought and suggest questions that may inform future research in this area.

Since 2000, multiple studies have supported the effectiveness of leveraging learning agility to predict leader success (performance) and leadership potential. Undoubtedly, learning agility is a framework used by industrial-organizational psychology and human resource practitioners to increase leadership development success and improve leadership bench strength. Perhaps informal — or influential — leadership roles may also benefit from the framework of learning agility. Learning agility has become even more relevant during the current organizational and social environment characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). Projects are temporary endeavors, which suggests project leaders are regularly presented with new and unique opportunities to apply project management principles. This article will focus on how learning agility may help to improve the success of project management.

How Does Project Management Benefit?

A project leader’s responsibilities continue to become more dynamic because as business and leadership competencies have become a focal point for PMs; projects exist within increasingly complex business environments. Project Management Institute’s (PMI) Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) describes three key responsibilities of a project manager: technical, business, and leadership skills. More recently, PMI has published work supporting the growing business expectation for project management practitioners to improve business and leadership competencies over technical skills in order to improve project success. A report from Pulse of the Profession (2019) stated that project management success relies on flexibility, adaptability, and curiosity. While projects are becoming more complex, the expected time to complete projects (cycle time) is declining, which increases pressure and demands improved competencies.  As a point of comparison, Burke’s research identified nine dimensions that characterized people who were more learning agile: 1) Speed; 2) Flexibility; 3) Performance Risk-Taking; 4) Interpersonal Risk-Taking; 5) Experimenting; 6) Collaborating; 7) Feedback Seeking; 8) Information Gathering; 9) Reflecting.

In 2021, PMI will be publishing a new edition of the PMBOK to align with the project management profession’s evolving demands. First, the PMBOK defines leadership as the ability to demonstrate and adapt leader behaviors. Secondly, the PMBOK includes a new “uncertainty performance domain,” which addresses variables associated with risk and uncertainty. Within the same topic, characteristics of project nuances include uncertainty, volatility, complexity, and ambiguity. In a recently published 6th edition of The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management by Eric Verzuh (2021), he discussed project management as a “journey of discovery” characterized by chaos and multiple decision points. Verzuh discussed leadership without authority as a roadblock that must be overcome with other strategies to influence project teams, including group development, politics, and personal authority (expert and referent).

Garner recognized similarities between leaders’ daily responsibilities and project managers’ — or project leaders’ — expectations. He identified a business problem related to the high failure rate of information technology projects and the costs associated with these failures. While the figures were inconsistent between contributing authors, the PMI supported that the profession continues to experience a significant shift in how work is getting done. But this shift is not static. This shift is like a moving target. A potential meta-competency of adapting to changing conditions quickly and flexibly was used as a lens for this study.

Research (Burke LAI)

Garner developed a research question to examine the learning agility of managers (Group M) and project managers of information technology projects (Group P). He attempted to determine if there were any significant learning agility differences between the two sample groups by measuring the nine factors present within the Burke Learning Agility Inventory® (Burke LAI®). The study was intended to be descriptive, quantitative, non-experimental, and leveraged descriptive statistical analytics.

The study examined learning agility levels between each of the two collective groups using the median values of factor scores. Results showed higher median scores and ratings for managers in interpersonal risk-taking, information gathering, and feedback-seeking. The median scores were also defined on a rating scale provided by E.A.S.I-Consult, LLC., which enabled complementary analysis for factor scores between each collective group and predetermined competency levels. The factor rating results were “high” for Group M and “low” for Group P. The table below reflects a high-level analysis of each group for each factor measured within the Burke LAI self-assessment. It is important to note that there was an outlier in Group P that rated extraordinarily low in all factor scores, which impacted the mean values and why median values were selected for analysis. The difference between these two groups is consistent with prior studies on managers and non-managers that supports higher competency in interpersonal risk-taking, information gathering, and feedback-seeking. Again, this may be explained by cultural effects as both sample groups were purposively selected from the same organization.

Additionally, the study included an analysis of the frequency of low, average, and high factor scores for individuals within each group. The figure below represents the summary of that analysis. As evidenced, project managers had more frequent high ratings for speed and reflecting, and managers had more frequent high ratings for interpersonal risk-taking, information gathering, and feedback-seeking. This result was partly consistent with the collective group ratings and explained by a larger spread of individual median factor scores in the table above. An explanation for these results, specifically where project managers had more “high” ratings, is the relationship between speed and reflecting in an autonomous environment. Speed is the ability to identify issues and correct course or select alternatives, quick enough to reduce adverse effects. Reflecting may serve as an input of the ability to increase speed by examining self-performance (or project leadership ability) critically to continually identify improvement opportunities (for example, skills such as leadership, self-awareness, negotiation, relationship building). Additional analysis was not explored, but this may be a cultural effect similar to the median scores identified in the prior table.

Conclusion

Formal leadership potential and success has been the central focus of learning agility studies since the framework introduction in 2000. The results provide evidence that learning agility may be applicable to project management practitioners supported by minor differences in factor scores. Higher scores observed for managers were consistent with prior studies that showed evidence of managers having higher skills than non-managers in similar competencies. However, while a project manager may not meet the traditional definition of a manager, project managers require leadership competencies to lead complex projects successfully. Furthermore, experiential learning states that learning occurs as an effect of a person and the environment. While outcomes result from the choices made between a stimulus and response, it is possible that outcomes are a function of choices and subsequent responses – and both require learning agility. Project managers are frequently confronted with conditions requiring autonomous and informed decisions and accountability for corrective actions (speed).

The study results could be related to cultural expectations since the sample was purposively selected from a single organization. In my technical project management experience over the past 21 years, technical competencies      are more valued and  required than leadership or business competencies. Only recently has there been increased attention on the leadership and business competencies of a project manager, which is what makes this study and future studies on this topic so relevant. While the business’s complexities were traditionally absorbed by upper management, the current environment requires project leaders to anticipate and examine these complexities more autonomously and then develop plans that lead to successful project implementation.

The study’s sample size was too small to allow Garner to generalize his results to an entire population. Nonetheless, he sees the results of this study providing an opportunity for additional research in this area. A call for further research explains how.

A Call for Additional Research

The results provide evidence to extend the research to determine if factors within the Burke LAI framework are more beneficial to project managers (such as speed and reflecting) or managers (such as interpersonal risk-taking, information gathering, and feedback-seeking), and what developmental opportunities exist. Developmental opportunities are an output of the Burke LAI and would apply to both groups. Examples include engaging in activities that challenge comfort levels and perceptions, engaging in more complex projects to improve abilities, or improving information gathering and relationship-building to improve results. A comparable assessment with a larger sample size would enhance the credibility of the results. Secondly, the study was not concerned with the professional success rate of individuals taking the assessment. Measuring successful project managers’ learning agility may help us further understand what learning agility factors may be most impactful and predictive of successful project execution. A comparison study of the learning agility of new project managers, or less successful project managers, and successful project managers may provide useful data to validate results and support focused development. Another option could include examining the learning agility of project managers of highly complex projects and project managers of lower complexity projects to determine if certain levels of learning agility factors predict success in more complex and dynamic projects or programs.

About the Author

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.