Understanding the 4 Sets of Learning-Agility Behaviors

Excerpt from “Learning Agility: Unlock the Lessons of Experience,” a guidebook from the Center for Creative Leadership, by George Hallenbeck.

It was early 2014, and the Ebola virus was beginning its deadly spread through portions of Western Africa. As the outbreak crept ever closer to Liberia’s crowded capital, Monrovia, Dr. Jerry Brown, medical director of the ELWA Hospital, was concerned. What might be the consequences of the outbreak in a city of more than 4 million people, with only a handful of ambulances and no established isolation wards?

Dr. Brown realized that something needed to be done and quickly translated his concerns into action. Without any direct training in the treatment of the virus and no infectious disease experts in the country to reach out to, Dr. Brown and his team went about preparing themselves—not yet knowing the scope of the problem that eventually would come their way.

When the virus reached Monrovia, Dr. Brown and his team immediately found themselves fighting multiple battles. Before the first ambulance arrived, staff were refusing to administer treatment and even resigning. Dr. Brown had to persuade staff and lead by example to help overcome others’ fears and uncertainties. That was just the beginning. Government officials, aid agencies, suppliers, and others all had to be called upon and persuaded to lend their efforts to stemming the crisis.

The initial small number of cases quickly multiplied into a full-blown outbreak. Dr. Brown and his team had to improvise protocols and treatments, and when these approaches didn’t work, they reassessed the situation and tried a new approach.

As weeks passed, ELWA’s patients began showing signs of recovery, and surviving patients eventually were discharged. To win the confidence of the media and the public, Dr. Brown took the bold move of shaking hands with survivors to symbolize that the virus could, indeed, be overcome.

Dr. Brown and several others who heroically fought the Ebola outbreak were recognized for their efforts by being named as Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2014. In a video interview with the magazine, Dr. Brown reflected: “There are a lot of things I’ve learned from this outbreak. One of which is being able to look around yourself and see what you can use that’s available. To find a remedy to the situation than just sitting and waiting for a remedy from outside. What’s in your power. How you can make use of what’s available.”

The story of Dr. Brown and the staff at ELWA is an inspiring account of courage, resilience, and determination to triumph in the face of enormous challenges. It is also a vivid example of the mindset and behaviors that characterize learning agility.

It’s a rare and valuable talent. These individuals make a name for themselves as the go-to leaders in situations where the stakes are high, the problems lack clarity, and the solutions aren’t easy to identify, much less execute: starting up an overseas operation, implementing a complex new technology, turning around an underperforming product line, leading a post-merger integration team.

But what is it that these people do to make them such unique and special talents? Some characteristics come to mind—curious, insightful, resourceful, adaptable, savvy, resilient—but no single one seems to capture what sets them apart. That’s because it’s not a single trait, but rather an integrated set of behaviors, that underlies their success.

Through decades of research, Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) has gained insight into the exact nature of these behaviors, collectively called learning agility. We also understand how these behaviors can be developed. What’s more, while many people don’t possess high levels of learning agility, it can be learned and anyone can become more proficient. At the heart of learning agility is something we all have but we might not always see or leverage the value in—our experience.

Learning-agile individuals are distinguished by their willingness and ability to learn from experience. But they also excel at applying that learning to perform successfully in new and challenging situations. Put another way, learning-agile people have “learned how to learn” from their experiences and made a strong commitment to seeking new challenges that allow them to both apply what they’ve learned and acquire new lessons for later application.

Few people who are learning agile have been explicitly taught the skills that have helped them become that way. Not surprisingly, they have developed these skills on their own and come to recognize these skills and their value as a result of experience. They are more likely to use terms such as “quick study” or “lifelong learner” to describe their abilities than say they are learning agile. Nor can they easily describe the specific behaviors that make up their approach to learning.

CCL’s research into learning from experience and the skills of those who excel at it has allowed us to decode the “unconscious competence” of most learning-agile people and separate this competence into four specific sets of behaviors:

  1. Seeking: Developing learning agility requires an intentional willingness to immerse yourself in new and challenging situations that broaden and expand your experiences. Learning-agile individuals see these situations as prime opportunities for new learning and growth. Furthermore, they are opportunities to seek out and embrace, not just to accept as each opportunity comes along.
  2. Sensemaking: Learning from experience is a highly active and ongoing process marked by curiosity and a willingness to experiment. Asking “Why?” “How?” and “Why not?” is essential to gaining the insight and perspective that fuels learning. Failed experiments, and the setbacks and criticism that accompany them, are just a part of the ongoing journey for learning-agile individuals.
  3. Internalizing: Learning doesn’t end with the experience. Seeking feedback and taking time to reflect are critical for deepening insight and embedding critical lessons for recall and application. They also strengthen self-awareness, which is essential for dealing with future challenges in a realistic manner and staying open to new learning.
  4. Applying: A lesson is not truly learned until it is applied. Learning agile individuals excel at adaptive learning—accessing principles and rules of thumb from previous experiences and applying them to navigate new and challenging situations. Swiftly adapting to new circumstances based on an understanding of what has (and hasn’t) worked in other situations is at the heart of what distinguishes learning-agile individuals.

Excerpt from “Learning Agility: Unlock the Lessons of Experience,” a guidebook from the Center for Creative Leadership, by George Hallenbeck. To read more on this subject or purchase the book, visit: http://solutions.ccl.org/Learning-Agility-Unlock-Lessons-Experience.

George Hallenbeck is group director for Global Product Development at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), where he leads a multi-disciplinary team to develop the next generation of CCL’s programs, assessments, publications, and services, building off of CCL’s rigorous body of research. Hallenbeck has co-authored five books, including FYI for Learning Agility” andSelecting an Agile Leader.” He earned his B.A. in psychology from Colby College and his M.S. and Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology from Colorado State University. He is a member of the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology and the American Psychological Association. 

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