Leaders Must React:  A Framework For Responding To Unforeseen Events, was the title of an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) by Nitin Nohria at Harvard Business School. The article appeared in the HBR January-February 2024  issue. The title caught my attention because I am always interested in what leaders do when they don’t know what to do. Why? Because that is my passion and what learning agility is all about.

This work by Nohria is a continuation of a 2018 HBR article he wrote with Michael Porter that focused on how CEOs spent their time. They looked at 27 large company CEOs and tracked their activities, breaking them into 15-minute increments.  This was done for 13 weeks. One of their findings was that CEOs spent 36% of their time in this study in reactive mode.  These issues could be externally driven, like the stock price, or internally focused, like workplace accidents or employee unrest. The authors wanted to help the CEOs understand what issues needed their attention and which did not.  Another variable is how an issue initially presents itself and how significant it becomes over time. Nohria and Porter created a 2X2 matrix to organize the variables.  The two sides of the matrix are time (small to significant) and how the issue initially presents itself (small to significant).

Next, they categorized issues into four types: Normal Noise, Clarion Calls, Whisper Warnings, and Siren Songs. Normal noise refers to small issues likely to remain small, where the leader’s role is to avoid getting entangled. Clarion calls are significant issues likely to remain significant, demanding the leader’s full attention. Whisper warnings are small issues that could escalate, requiring the leader to address them early on. Siren songs are issues that are likely to fade over time, and the leader’s task is to resist overreacting to them.

Nohria and Porter describe their framework put into action as sensing, sizing, and responding. At this point, I began to think about Burke’s Learning Agility research. The definition I use with my work in this area is finding yourself in a situation where you have never been before, not knowing what to do and figuring it out. We might explore where some or any of the nine dimensions of learning agility could make a difference to executives dealing with unforeseen events.

The Burke Assessment consists of nine dimensions that together measure a person’s learning agility. Two of the dimensions are called the drivers of learning agility: Speed and Flexibility. The other seven dimensions of Burke’s Learning Agility research are Experimenting, Collaborating, Performance Risk-Taking, Interpersonal Risk-Taking, Feedback Seeking, Information Gathering, and Reflecting. Some of the issues or warning signs for executives use variations of the names of the nine dimensions. In one case, both Burke and Nohria describe what the executive needs is feedback.  Nohria talks about networking; Burke calls that Collaborating. Nohria talks about sensemaking as recognizing patterns.  The Burke equivalent is Flexibility. Burke sees Flexibility as looking at a group of things and determining a framework to explain it.  One keeps changing the lens until an organizing framework is identified. Nohria discusses what is involved with “seizing” the issue.  Burke’s equivalent learning agility dimension is Performance Risk-Taking. Two individuals are trying to find a mutually acceptable way to quantify an issue. Without a common yardstick the two individuals are using different yardsticks that lead to two different conclusions. Nohria describes being “awash” in information. Addressing this issue with the Burke assessment involves two different dimensions. The most obvious is Information Gathering. This needs to be combined with Speed. You need to look at a mountain of information and be able to distill it to the five key points accurately. Then, Nohria talks about responding to the myriad of issues that come across an executive’s desk with an “appropriate” level of response. He talks about the stages of responding, from Sensing to Sizing to Responding. Some of the issues that executives face are ones they have previously dealt with, like union issues or fluctuations in the stock price, thus affecting a company’s valuation. There are other novel issues like the Financial Crisis of 2008 and Covid that executives have never seen.

What would be the Burke Learning Agility process for responding to Nohria’s Sensing, Sizing, and Responding? First, the executive would need to recognize that a problem or issue requires one or more elements of learning agility. How would the executive know? They realize they are in unfamiliar territory. What would the executive do at the Sizing stage? They would initially identify dimensions that would help them respond and then go deeper and determine the behavioral elements within any dimension they decide to use. What would the executive do with the Burke approach in the Responding stage? They would begin conceptualizing an appropriate response to the challenge with an appropriate combination of learning agility dimensions and behaviors in an action plan that would allow them to accomplish the goal or objective they have been given.

In conclusion, learning agility is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do. Identifying one’s degree of learning agility could help executives develop certain critical capabilities in the long run. In the short run, getting feedback on your level of learning agility can help you know what, where, and when to get the help you need to successfully respond to potentially career-ending challenges.


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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.