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How to Cultivate Learning Agility as an Independent Professional

   |   George Hallenbeck   |   September 20, 2018

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We’ve all been there. Whether by circumstance or your own choosing, you’ve found yourself in a situation where you realize you are in way over your head. Beyond pondering “How did I get into this mess?” the next thought to occur is often “What do I do now?”

Think about the last time you were in that kind of situation. What happened next? Your reaction might say a lot about how learning agile you are.

Learn more in the webinar: Adapt… or Else! Tap into the Power of Learning Agility

What is Learning Agility?

Learning agility is the ability to know what to do when you don’t know what to do. That probably captures its essence better than any formal definition, but to put learning agility in more specific terms, it involves the practice of four specific and interrelated sets of behaviors that allow people to learn deeply from their experiences and then apply the lessons they’ve learned when faced with new and challenging circumstances. Let’s dive deeper into the four sets of behaviors:

1. SEEKING

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, these are opportunities to seek out and embrace, not just to accept.

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?” are 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 is critical for deepening insight and embedding critical lessons for future 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 isn’t truly learned until it’s 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.

How Can Learning Agility Benefit Independent Professionals?

Learning agility has many benefits for independents. Learning agility can help you:

  • Quickly orient yourself to the needs of new clients
  • Deal with unforeseen problems, including sudden scope changes
  • Branch out into new services and solutions
  • Stay on a path of continual growth and learning that keeps you relevant and in-demand
  • Learn from your mistakes and make real-time adjustments to keep things on track

The good news is that learning is a skill that can be developed and you can do it on your own. There are many specific approaches, but the overall best way is to gain access to experiences that get you out of your comfort zone and literally force you to try different things and acquire new skills and insights. It’s not a straightforward and easy route to learning but by working through the discomfort and setbacks that often accompany learning in new situations, you come out better and stronger and ready to tackle the next challenge.

Richard Branson, in many ways the epitome of learning agility (along with the likes of Oprah and Nelson Mandela, to name a few) perhaps said it best:

“If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity, but you are not sure you can do it, say yes—then learn how to do it later!”

So next time you find yourself in that situation where you don’t know what to do, tap into learning agility to help lead the way to rapid solutions and continued personal and professional growth.

George Hallenbeck

Director, Commercialization at Center for Creative Leadership