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By: Jaintheran Naidoo and Jan Meijning
An agile culture, agile mindset and learning agile people. The term Agility is increasingly front and centre in the strategy of organisations. In addition, more and more companies plan their work according to the agile methodology, not just in the IT department but throughout the organisation. Google Agile HR or Agile Marketing, and you’ll be inundated with articles and training programmes.
In this article, we look at whether it is critical for people working within the agile workstyle to be learning agile. Is Learning Agility related to agile working or is it a totally separate concept?
Agile working seems to have become the standard in many organisations, but what makes it so popular? The advantages of agile working seem evident, with the emphasis on results being the main driver. Everyone is familiar with examples of (traditionally often ICT) projects that consistently meet their deadline while delivering on highly complex work. A hallmark of effective agile working is that the end of the journey no longer reflects the initial project requirements because the original plan became outdated over time and evolved accordingly. By working in smaller steps and delivering (preliminary) results that are still relevant, then testing to see whether they work and fit requirements, we can seek and find faster, more creative and pragmatic solutions. The ability to respond flexibly to increasingly rapid changes caused by technological developments, globalisation and/or economic circumstances enables you to stay ahead of the curve as an organisation.
2001 (now nearly 2 decades ago!): A group of software experts spent several days holed up in the snow-capped mountains of Utah because they firmly believed that a smarter and more effective approach to software development was possible.
This meeting produced a statement about how people can work most efficiently and quickly to achieve the best results in a (software development) project. It was no longer the case that a detailed plan first had to be drawn up, then meticulously followed step by step until the project was completed. Now small (multidisciplinary) teams would work in short sprints on initial results, constantly reviewing progress to ultimately achieve the desired result. They published the Agile Manifesto:
In many organisations, agile working methods are naturally first adopted by IT or software development departments. Switching to agile working in departments other than IT is the logical next step. Agile HR or Agile Marketing might initially sound strange, but in a rapidly changing world like ours, traditional workflows are often no longer as effective because they are slow and cumbersome. If you can’t respond to new technological developments and changing customer requirements, your organisation may fall behind the competition. This applies not only to IT but to other departments in the organisation as well.
There are too many examples of large companies that have gone under because they were unable to adapt fast enough to the new reality. For example, if a physical clothes department store fails to respond in a timely and effective way to new online options, they are asking for problems. The customer soon gets used to the new service offerings and switches more easily to competitors and newcomers.
If you can work more flexibly as an organisation, you can change course faster if the market requires it. That’s why organisations have increasingly adopted agile working. You see more and more job titles based on agile ways of working: Scrum Master, Product Owner or even Vibe Manager. Apart from all the new titles now displayed on LinkedIn, working in multidisciplinary agile teams that can adjust quickly, experiment and deliver results, has enhanced the performance of organisations.
Learning Agility is the ability to develop new effective behaviour based on new experiences, and then to apply this behaviour successfully. People who score high on Learning Agility learn more and faster in new situations. They are able to derive more from their experiences and are constantly looking for new challenges. They seek out feedback to learn, recognise patterns in unfamiliar situations and collaborate with others to effectively understand and make sense of experiences.
Learning Agility is no longer a new term in the world of work. At the start of the 21st century, the term emerged in America and measuring Learning Agility was initially applied to the theme of leadership. Seeking leaders of the future by looking at the qualities of today might seem illogical, but the term was quickly embraced. Research soon revealed that a high degree of Learning Agility predicts successful workplace performance in an unknown future. Learning Agility is measured in five dimensions:
Do you need flexible, learning agile people if your organisation uses an agile working method? Yes and no. Agile working is a methodology, an established work style that is guided and categorised in terms of clear rules and elements that everyone recognises. In fact, it is a very strictly prescribed workstyle where projects run from A to B and then perhaps back to A and via C back to B, but still according to the fixed steps. Learning Agility is the ability to quickly find new effective solutions in changing circumstances and then to apply these immediately. Besides the common buzzword of agility, agile working is a strictly, clearly described working method and Learning Agility is a flexible learning approach; they, therefore, don’t seem to have much in common. For an established working method, you don’t need to be agile. Do you?
Nothing is less true. The words new and change are very important here. Learning agile people manage change more easily, even initiate it and learn how to deal with changing realities more quickly and effectively. This is a core principle of agile working. The ability of an organisation to achieve the requested, and above all the not yet requested, results more quickly and flexibly.
This is the match between agile working and Learning Agility. Not in the agile, prescribed working method itself, but in the why and how. Most agile methods (scrum, lean, etc.) place an emphasis on the following: cooperation in (multidisciplinary) teams, delivering workable preliminary results, experimentation and being allowed to make mistakes, communication and transparency, reflection moments and asking for help if you need it. And this is exactly where Learning Agility plays an important role!
Research has shown that people with higher Learning Agility not only learn more quickly in an unfamiliar situation, but their current performance is often better too. If your organisation switches to agile working methods, it is very useful to have a group of people with high(er) Learning Agility. Such a switch is a considerable change for people and requires a healthy dose of change management to be able to implement it effectively and successfully. In situations where it is clear what’s expected of someone, where work is based on routine procedures and where there are few, if any, changes, being extremely learning agile isn’t a must.
In fact, there are some professions where you’d prefer someone who doesn’t love experimenting. An air traffic controller or a crane operator who suddenly thinks it might be nice to do things completely differently today? No thanks! And there are other jobs where you would certainly prefer people not to be too flexible and experimental.
But the same applies to these jobs too: the world is no longer static. Nearly every job faces change. Even an air traffic controller, pilot, mechanic or crane operator faces changing requests and circumstances. And the more learning agile someone is, the more easily and quickly they adjust. In other words: Learning Agility does not reflect how skilled the crane operator is in his current type of crane, but more about how quickly he can switch to another working method for a different type of crane.
A match made in heaven might sound exaggerated, but the combination of agile working and Learning Agility is certainly useful. Fail fast, learn faster is a saying that relates to agile working. And it also applies to Learning Agility. All of the agile working elements previously mentioned (cooperation, reflection, etc) require a higher degree of Learning Agility.
The light blue terms are important in agile working methods and fit in very well with the different Learning Agility dimensions.
If you have a combination of the above qualities, you can switch more quickly and effectively if something new is required of you. And that’s Learning Agility.
Yes you can! Learning Agility is measured by a combination of what you can do and what you want to do, optionally combined with your current behaviour in practice (what you are currently doing). This combined measurement provides a complete and nuanced picture. By only basing a Learning Agility measurement on personality/potential, motivations or current behaviour, you do people an injustice. If you merely look at people’s basic skills, you miss what people want. And a measurement based solely on current behaviour to predict effective behaviour in an unknown future is too limited and narrow.
An established working method, agile or otherwise, basically has nothing to do with Learning Agility. It is simply an established working method. But whatever working method you use, if you are required to work intensively and transparently in a team, to experiment, to deal with complexity and to deliver clear results at regular times, this demands certain qualities. Agile working requires you to do more with respect to sharing your knowledge, monitoring your results, stimulating your own development and considering how problems can be solved.
If you need to quickly embark in a new direction at work, being more learning agile is certainly an advantage. These are all things that someone with a higher Learning Agility can manage more easily. Furthermore, someone with higher Learning Agility is comfortable in situations where not everything is already known; they will seek more feedback and interaction than someone who is less learning agile. In other words: learning-agile people learn more quickly and effectively in new situations and therefore also if agile working is adopted in your organisation.