Four Ways to Develop Learning Agility and Improve Perspective

There is a method to the way you learn, and it is personal to you.  If you’re not paying close attention, you won’t have thought about the assumptions you make and behavioral patterns you rely upon when you make decisions, think, and act.  Approximately 30 to 50% of executives experience some kind of executive or management derailment in the course of their careers.  Research suggests that this stagnation and underperformance can be attributed to a person’s failure to update his or her mental frameworks in the wake of new experience.

In other words, you can and should be learning from the breadth of your personal and professional experiences to develop systematic thinking.  Monique Valcour in Harvard Business Review describes this skill as “learning agility,” or “the capacity for rapid, continuous learning from experience.”

Agile learners are good at making connections across experiences, and they’re able to let go of perspectives or approaches that are no longer useful — in other words, they can unlearn things when novel solutions are required. People with this mindset tend to be oriented toward learning goals and open to new experiences. They experiment, seek feedback, and reflect systematically.

Develop a desire to improve

How do you develop learning agility?  Its foundation is a desire to improve through (1) the development of new skills and (2) succeeding in new situations.

Agile learners value and derive satisfaction from the process of learning itself, which boosts their motivation as well as their capacity to learn from  challenging developmental experiences.

By finding internal value in the process of learning through new experiences, agile learners “don’t get defensive” and are more “willing to take risks.”  The benefit to this mindset becomes clear when you consider being confronted with a new, uncomfortable, scary experience.  Instead of fearing moving outside of their comfort zone or risking public critique through open discussion, an agile learner broadens experience and improves his or her mental toolkit by taking advantage of the opportunity to learn in a new environment.

Four Mental Tools You Can Use to Sharpen Your Learning Agility

There are discrete practical tools you can use to improve your ability to learn from experience in meaningful ways.

1.      Ask for feedback.

Think of one or more people who interacted with you or observed your performance on a given task. Tell them you’d value their perspective on how you did, and ask what you could do differently the next time. To maximize learning from their feedback — and this is vital — restrain any urge to defend yourself. Thank them for their input, and then ask yourself what you can learn.

This practice depends on your mindset, and will not work if you cling to defensiveness.  Google’s Director of Executive Coaching and Leadership, David Peterson simplifies this into a retrievable motto: “There has to be a better way, and I don’t know it yet.”

The power of the motto lies in the word “yet.” As research on growth mindset by psychologist Carol Dweck has found, if you hold the view that there is always more to learn and embrace the process of wading into unfamiliar waters, you can free your thinking, dissolve your fear of failure, and power your success.

2.     Test Out New Mental Models and Approaches

Expanding your mental toolkit requires you to test and retest different perspectives, models, and approaches.

To identify new behaviors for testing, Peterson recommends reflecting on a challenge you’re facing and asking yourself questions such as “What’s one thing I could do to change the outcome of the situation?” and “What will I do differently in the future?” You can also conduct thought experiments, unearthing possibilities from trying out a different point of view. For example, one of my clients was concerned about leading the first team development offsite with her new team of highly talented country managers. With some reflection, she realized that she had gotten stuck in the perspective that in order to be seen as credible, she had to know more than they did. Since she was new, this was impossible. Holding on to that perspective would have caused her stress and undermined her credibility. By letting go of the assumption that she had to be the subject-matter expert and adopting the perspective that she could add greater value as a facilitator, she was able to design and carry out a meeting at which creative ideas flowed freely. The team, which had previously suffered from poor coordination, developed more collaborative relationships.

We all have biases in our decision-making, many of them hidden from our own view.  This is why developing a broad set of mental models is so important — they cause you to shift perspective and unroot hidden traps in your thinking.  Checking your assumptions and testing new approaches to familiar scenarios will allow you to explore effectiveness of these ideas.

3.     Understand cross-disciplinary connections

This is a key to reaping value from new experiences.  Studying and reading broadly provides you with little value if you do not let new ideas cross-pollenate and fertilize your other areas of knowledge.

Peterson has systematically applied principles he’s used to learn about wine to the domain of leadership development. Oenologists develop expertise by trying many different wines, comparing them, and discussing them with fellow experts. Borrowing these principles, Peterson realized that he could extend his mastery of leadership development by seeking out a wide variety of leaders to coach, comparing leaders to each other on various qualities, and discussing leaders with other experts.

You must have an area of expertise that on its face, has nothing to do with your profession.  But think harder and more deeply to see the connections.  How can you apply the lessons you learned during one area to the other.  This is one benefit of reading broadly across a wide variety of subjects – an understanding of seemingly unrelated areas of study will, upon reflection, turn into a network of mental models that help you approach and solve problems in new ways.

4.   Review and reflect.

To understand the lessons learned from new experience, you need to systematically reflect on those experiences.

A growing body of research shows that systematically reflecting on work experiences boosts learning significantly.  To ensure continuous progress, get into the habit of asking yourself questions like “What have I learned from this experience?” and “What turned out differently than I expected?” Leaders who demonstrate and encourage reflection not only learn more themselves, they also spur increased contextual awareness and reflective practice in others, thereby laying a foundation for higher levels of learning agility in their teams and organizations.

Make time to do this.  Put it on your calendar, and don’t let anything get in the way.  In my experience, review provides the most value if you do it regularly and purposefully.  My weekly reviews let me focus on details, tasks, and short-term goals.  Monthly reviews let me think about bigger lessons learned from projects and check progress towards annual goals. Quarterly and annual reviews let me take stock on my alignment with long-term and life goals.

Go and Seek out the New

Once you have built a desire for improvement and understand these practices, go and seek out new experiences, people, and information.  Valcour highlights the difference you can expect between career development and career stagnation by pointing to examples:

Learning agility also involves being open to new experiences, people, and information. Two senior management professors I’ve encountered at academic conferences over the years exemplify opposite ends of the spectrum. Professor A has a voracious appetite for new ideas. Despite his lofty academic stature, he converses just as enthusiastically with graduate students and junior faculty from little-known universities as he does with fellow academic stars, and he collaborates with a wide variety of scholars. Well into his 70s, he’s vibrant, energetic, and recognized as an active leader in his research domain. Professor B, by contrast, shows little interest in scholars outside of his familiar circle of followers. His presentations generally rehash old ideas; it’s been a long time since he produced anything new. Although he made many important contributions earlier in his career, the low level of learning agility he exhibits now accompanies his fading reputation. He’s fallen into the exact career trap the CEO is seeking to avoid.

artwork: By Peter Pöml [CC BY-SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0)

Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Thinking Through the Financial Risks of 2016

Essayist, scholar, statistician, risk analyst, and author of The Black Swan
and Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder Nassim Nicholas Taleb offers advice on investment decisions in 2016, via the WSJ:

Asking “How should we think about financial risks in 2016,” Taleb points to (1) increased stability in banking institutions; (2) declining values in asset categories in which low interest rates encouraged speculation; (3) potential negative impact of low commodity prices in certain sectors; (4) poor recognition of emergent physical risks such as epidemic; and (5) acute nonlinear risks associated with climate change:

First, worry less about the banking system. Financial institutions today are less fragile than they were a few years ago. This isn’t because they got better at understanding risk (they didn’t) but because, since 2009, banks have been shedding their exposures to extreme events. Hedge funds, which are much more adept at risk-taking, now function as reinsurers of sorts. Because hedge-fund owners have skin in the game, they are less prone to hiding risks than are bankers.

This isn’t to say that the financial system has healed: Monetary policy made itself ineffective with low interest rates, which were seen as a cure rather than a transitory painkiller. Zero interest rates turn monetary policy into a massive weapon that has no ammunition. There’s no evidence that “zero” interest rates are better than, say, 2% or 3%, as the Federal Reserve may be realizing.

I worry about asset values that have swelled in response to easy money. Low interest rates invite speculation in assets such as junk bonds, real estate and emerging market securities. The effect of tightening in 1994 was disproportionately felt with Italian, Mexican and Thai securities. The rule is: Investments with micro-Ponzi attributes (i.e., a need to borrow to repay) will be hit.

Taleb identifies risk in commodity prices and consequential effects in other energy sectors:

Dubai is more threatened by oil prices than Islamic State. Commodity people have been shouting, “We’ve hit bottom,” which leads me to believe that they still have inventory to liquidate. Long-term agricultural commodity prices might be threatened by improvement in the storage of solar energy, which could prompt some governments to cancel ethanol programs as a mandatory use of land for “clean” energy.

Most interesting to me was Taleb’s concern about areas of concern outside of the financial markets, specifically the physical risks of disease and climate change:

We also need to focus on risks in the physical world. Terrorism is a problem we’re managing, but epidemics such as Ebola are patently not. The most worrisome fact of 2015 was the reaction to the threat of Ebola, with the media confusing a multiplicative disease with an ordinary one and shaming people for overreacting. Cancer rates cannot quadruple from one month to the next; epidemics can. We are clearly unprepared to deal with such threats.

Finally, climate volatility will produce some nonlinear effects, and these will be compounded in our interconnected world, in which disruptions are more acute. The East Coast blackout of August 2003 was nothing compared with what may come.

photo:     Balon Greyjoy (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Detecting Bias in Your Decision-Making

Warren Buffett is regarded as one of the most successful investors in history.  He and his partner, Charlie Munger, attribute a large part of the success of Berkshire Hathaway to the partnership’s ability to make investment decisions without the influence of cognitive bias that risk every human decision.

Whether it’s about investments, business strategy, political candidates, or personal matters, we all try to make good decisions. Unfortunately, emotion and bias is part of human psychology.  While we can’t eliminate bias completely, we can each develop our own toolkit for detecting and mitigating against those unhelpful mental quirks that can lead us down the wrong path if we’re not careful.

Paul Graham of Y Combinator has written a thoughtful essay describing an elegant but subtle method of detecting bias in the evaluation of applicant pools.  The interesting idea in Graham’s observation is that it allows third-parties to detect bias in an organization’s decision-making, even if that organization makes efforts to screen certain details of its process.

Graham suggests that bias can be detected whenever “(a) you have at least a random sample of the applicants that were selected, (b) their subsequent performance is measured, and (c) the groups of applicants you’re comparing have roughly equal distribution of ability.”  Graham explains that in these circumstances, bias can be measured by comparing the back-end success of different groups of applicants, even if you cannot view the applicant pool itself:

How does it work? Think about what it means to be biased. What it means for a selection process to be biased against applicants of type x is that it’s harder for them to make it through. Which means applicants of type x have to be better to get selected than applicants not of type x. Which means applicants of type x who do make it through the selection process will outperform other successful applicants. And if the performance of all the successful applicants is measured, you’ll know if they do.

Graham provides a helpful example of detecting gender bias in the venture capital world:

For example, many suspect that venture capital firms are biased against female founders. This would be easy to detect: among their portfolio companies, do startups with female founders outperform those without? A couple months ago, one VC firm (almost certainly unintentionally) published a study showing bias of this type. First Round Capital found that among its portfolio companies, startups with female founders outperformed those without by 63%.

Graham’s idea seems applicable to any process through which various individuals or opportunities are screened for participation or selection through some pre-defined criteria.  This could include hiring decisions, investment decisions, account or client decisions, or media or networking opportunities, just to name a few.  If you find that a certain group of applicants, or investments, or account type is outperforming the average of the total selected pool, you may have revealed some cognitive bias in your process disposed against the higher-performing group.

Improving decision-making requires a constant eye scanning your processes for places where bias might hide, and from which it might rise up to influence a decision.  Couple Graham’s idea with Shane Parrish’s The Work Required to Have an Opinion and Musashi’s tactics for understanding the strength and weakness in your position.