Learning Agility – Personal Development through “disruptive experiences”

Jerry Connor (2011) wrote a very interesting article in People Management, the magazine of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. In it Jerry describes learning agility and its perceived importance in developing future leaders in organisations. He defines learning agility as the “ability to learn from experiences and to apply that learning to new and different situations”.

He compares what he refers to as “LQ”  (Learning Quotient) to the currently more commonly utilised IQ (Intelligence Quotient) and EQ (Emotional Quotient). Quoting Povah and Sobczak (2010), Jerry describes learning agility as the “‘integrative element’ that allows leaders to make the most of all the other kinds of intelligence available to them”. Whilst this article is focused on leadership, he indicates that learning agility is essentially a skill critical to personal development. I agree and see learning agility as a critical personal development skill to be developed by everyone, not just leaders.

Jerry’s premise for pushing the case for the recognition and development of learning agility is the problems many employees face when transitioning to management and then to more senior positions. He states that “the winning formula that drives them today undermines them as they move up the organisation”. I also agree with this premise. I have experienced this for myself and supported others in their transitions from team member to team leader, to manager and then to senior manager. A useful read on this topic is The Leadership Pipeline by Charan, Drotter and Noel (2001).

Before I say what I like about this article and the concept in general, a word or two on the definition. Jerry focuses almost exclusively on experiential learning and its application in new situations. I see learning agility as a much broader faculty. Jerry speaks a lot about paradigm shifts, even titling his conclusion as “Challenging how we see the world”. This title offers, for me, a better view of where learning agility is more accurately focused. This is on the development of a reflective practice in which individuals develop self awareness, presence and adaptability. At the heart of learning agility is the development of the ‘adaptive self’.

What I really like about this article is the promotion of what Jerry refers to as “disruptive experiences” utilised in the leadership development programme of his client organisation, Cadbury. Jerry utilises these disruptive experiences “to trigger the sort of mindset shifts that encourage learning agility”. Details of what these disruptive experiences might be is not included in the article but a quote from a delegate indicates they have been having an impact: “The programme has been a transformational experience. It has touched me in a very unexpected way that makes me think I was blind before”. Powerful stuff.

The most powerful learning experiences for me have usually been when long-held paradigms have been revealed. This has sometimes been during formal learning interventions but often it has been when working with a coach, in developmental dialogue with a friend or colleague and sometimes on my own, reflecting on events. I have also worked with others to help them ‘see’ their paradigms such that new learning can take place. Again, no one intervention is best for this type of personal development. A single, well-timed question can be enough to cause reflection and learning to take place.

The development of learning agility has, for me, been an ongoing journey, starting early in my career and continuing to this day. I would suggest that as we age there is actually a real risk that learning agility is eroded as we tend to become ‘set in our ways’. I often joke that I am becoming the archetypal grumpy old man. This isn’t without foundation. Just the other day I caught myself having a good old grump at the fact that bars seem to insist on selling ice cold ale, which everyone knows should be served warm!

The development of learning agility is a life-long pursuit, from early in life to our old age. Ignoring it is a sure way to narrow perspectives and thus reduce opportunities for success and happiness.

What “disruptive experiences” have you exposed yourself to lately?

Tony

Connor, J. (2011) Deepening the Talent Pool Through Learning Agility. http://www.adc.uk.com/downloads/HRPS_PS33-4_Povah.pdf, accessed 7th December 2011.

Charan, R., Drotter, S. & Noel, J. (2001) The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership-Powered Company. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Povah and Sobczak (2010) A Context-Oriented Approach to Leader Selection. People & Strategy, Volume 33, Issue 4.

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