Agility and Speed of Learning

Riding the crest of change

In a world with a significantly heightened level of uncertainty, business leaders have little choice but to forge, to the extent possible, alignment between the organisation's emerging culture and (1) factors external to the business that cannot be anticipated (ongoing disruption), and (2) what tomorrow's customer will be willing to purchase (business model).

To succeed and even survive, leaders must learn how to ride the crest of change, how to use the challenge in inherent uncertainty to propel the business into a successful future, and how to harness the energy drawn out of creative tension and a compelling purpose.

In terms of day-to-day performance, creative tension involves two organisational imperatives - agility and organisational learning. First, agility and with it, by implication, the need to push decision-making as close to the customer as possible. Agility, meanwhile, no matter the form it takes, draws on the abiding quest for simplicity. That being understood, simplicity and, its alter ego, responsiveness are far more about mindset than, essential though it is, process reinvention.

To be agile you have to program yourself to "think simple". But not too simple. The second imperative, organisational learning, is a topic that has garnered a great deal of interest but is poorly applied. Without an inherent ability within the body of the organisation to learn from experience, reframe established practices at critical points on the journey, develop a heightened capacity to act, and, as needed, reinvent how the business does business, tomorrow is destined to be a replay of the past. COVID-19 is many things but, perhaps above all else, it's a wakeup call for society and business alike.

Make no mistake … tomorrow will be different! The pertinent question becomes, "Will you?"

The leadership journey

Learning is initiated by an experience. An action which, in turn, spawns a question. The quality of the question dictating the nature of the learning. Learning unfolds in one of three ways:

1) Simple learning - striving to do what we have always done, but better (instruction).
2) Learning how to learn - moving down a new path (exploration).
3) Learning how to learn limited by the imagination of those involved - transformation, innovation, creative destruction, and reinvention (play).

Each of those learning approaches shapes not only the outcome but at each stage the speed of learning increases exponentially. Arguably, the only truly sustainable competitive advantage is speed of learning. Without time set aside for meaningful reflection, of course, there can be no learning.

Learning to act and think about the world in a new way is not a linear process. It is much more like climbing a mountain. A base camp is established, and only once the base has been consolidated can the next camp be set up and supplied. Equally important, assumptions about what it means to be a leader have to be redefined at each stage of the journey.

Leadership and discontinuous change

Agility and its companion, learning, represent a journey, not a destination: a journey covering three Territories, (T1 - instruction, T2 - exploration, T3 - play); a journey dependent upon the right leadership; a journey punctuated by inherent discontinuity.

The three scenarios portray how learning unfolds in virtually every walk of life. Much as one might peel an onion, beneath agility and learning lies individual and, by implication, the team's mindset: how each of us interprets the world - the mental model we access to define reality. Our assumptions about work and organisational success frame our behaviour.

To survive in the white-water we have entered demands culture savvy and, above all else, an ability to quickly appraise and respond to the ever-changing world around us. The new reality? Personal survival is ultimately about how resilient and agile we are as a leader. And resilience isn't simply about "bouncing back." It means coming out of a world shaking event like COVID-19 even stronger.

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