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)

Finding Peace by Focusing on the Things in Your Control

It’s Monday morning.  You raced around all weekend, doing errands, buying groceries, shuttling kids to their playdates and practices.  You fit in some time with your spouse or friends on the evenings.  Sunday evening was the predictable mad scramble of planning, packing, and preparing for another busy week, with the clouds of anxiety gathering in your mind as you think about how busy, frenetic, and stressful the coming work and school week will be.  How do you feel on your Monday morning?  Are you behind schedule, anxious, impatient and weighed down by the worry of getting everything right?  Is there any way to shift this mindset to one focused on opportunity and to shed some of the stress?

Nearly two thousand years ago, Epictetus wrestled with this question.  Epictetus (c. AD 55-135), a Stoic philosopher living in the Roman Empire, believed that our capacity to be happy lies entirely in ourselves.  He taught through a series of discourses, many of which have been preserved.  A shorter version of the principal themes of his discourses was recorded in the Encheiridon, or Manual.  According to Epictetus and the Stoics, events are neither good nor bad, but our reactions to those events may be good or bad.  Our experience is, therefore, dictated by the sum of our reactions to the events of our life.

Epictetus begins his work the Encheiridion by distinguishing the things in our control with the things out of our control:

“Of things some are in our power, and others are not.  In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts.”

We have control over our opinion, movement, desire and aversion — “our own acts.”  We lack control over our bodies, our belongings, and our success.  Recognition of this distinction is important, because it is only by differentiating the things we control from the things we do not control that we can find freedom.  According to Epictetus, “the things in our power are by nature free,” but “the things not in our power are weak,” and “in the power of others.”

Suffering lies in our confusion about what we control:

“Remember then that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed….”

On the other hand, keeping a clear mind about the things that lie in our control is the pathway to mental freedom:

“If you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another’s, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily (against your will), no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm.”

Epictetus’s “live and let live” message of focusing only on the things you can control is easy enough to remember and practice when things are going well.  But how do we implement this type of mental discipline in tough times?  Epictetus recommends the practice of reflection in difficult circumstances as a means to develop peace and find opportunity.

First, Epictetus suggests that we examine obstacles closely to understand exactly what limitation they present:

“Disease is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless the will itself chooses.  Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will.  And add this reflection on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself.”

We all face obstacles in life.  Often times, however, the obstacle is not the barrier we may initially perceive.  Most importantly, Epictetus reminds us that there can be no obstacle to our own willpower that arises externally.  This is squarely in our own power.  Reviving our willpower in the face of difficulty can be a matter of examining challenge for opportunity:

On the occasion of every accident (event) that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use.

The suggestion here, is not that difficult times are easy.  We all face challenges that frustrate us, anger us, and hurt us.  The lessons in those moments, Epictetus suggests, is that pain can teach endurance, not getting what we want can teach patience, dealing with abusive people in our lives can teach understanding.

Finding this pathway to understanding requires us to remember Epictetus’s first point: focus on the things in your control.  We cannot control our external successes or failures, or how others view or treat us.  By remembering this, and developing a practice of reflection, we can find equanimity and peace in our relation to the world.  Epictetus writes that the “condition and characteristic of an uninstructed person” is that “he never expects from himself advantage nor harm, but from externals.”  In contrast, an instructed person “expects all advantage and all harm from himself.”  Ultimately, this is our choice to make:

“You must be one man, either good or bad.  You must either cultivate your own ruling faculty, or external things; you must either exercise your skill on internal things or on external things; that is, you must either maintain the position of a philosopher or that of a common man.”

Epictetus’s belief is that if we practice this, a better view of life awaits:

Seek not the that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but with the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.

Go tackle your Monday morning.  If it isn’t perfect – and whose ever is? – draw a bit of strength from Epictetus by remembering that while you can’t control the day, you can find peace in your reaction to it.