Last summer, I wrote a series of articles about the nine dimensions of learning agility separately. I noted that my colleague Warner Burke - a Professor at Columbia University who built on the original research in this area - confirmed two dimensions that had been previously identified: Speed and Flexibility.
He went on to identify seven others:
- Performance Risk Taking
- Interpersonal Risk Taking
- Feedback Seeking
- Information Gathering
Burke described learning agility as finding yourself in a situation in which you have never been before, not knowing what to do and then figuring it out. My firm, EASI Consult, took the 38 questions Burke had validated as being able to measure learning agility and created a test. The results of that test are compiled into a report that lets the test-taker know how much learning agility he or she has across the nine dimensions.
As you might imagine, the more people who take the test, the more configurations you see. At the same time, there are some patterns that tend to emerge. For example, people who score high in Interpersonal Risk Taking also tend to score high in Collaborating. Makes sense, since they are both related to working well with others, or being a “people person.” Many times, people who score higher on Experimenting also score higher on Performance Risk Taking. Both of those learning agility dimensions involve trying new things.
There are two dimensions – Speed and Reflecting - in which it is rare to see high scores in both. Speed, as it applies to learning agility, means acting on ideas quickly, so that those that are not working are discarded and other possibilities are accelerated. I think of someone who scores high on Speed as a “quick study.” He or she can look at a large amount of information and tell you which are the three most important points or ideas. Actually evaluating the three options would be the work of Experimenting. If, through Experimenting, it was determined that an option would not work, the person using Speed would then digest more information and identify another option.
Reflecting, on the other hand, is defined as slowing down to evaluate one’s own performance in order to be more effective. This is a learning agility dimension in which you stop, take a break and become very pensive. You are looking retrospectively at an event and using a filter, determining what happened and, perhaps, it’s significance or implications. Reflecting could come at the end of a task or activity, or one could apply what was learned to future actions.
My experience so far with the Burke test is people who score high on the dimension of Speed don’t score high on Reflecting and vice versa.
I work with many sales groups. Salespeople in general tend to be very action-oriented and it is typical for them to be high on the Speed dimension of learning agility. It is typical that these same salespeople are lower on Reflecting, although sales managers are a little higher.
I also work with scientific and financial professionals. Overall, they tend to be higher on Reflecting and lower on Speed. As a generalization, scientists and accounting types tend to be more measured and averse to risk. I am not saying it is not warranted, but it tends to show up on learning agility as a lot of thinking about something before acting and not diving into a situation quickly.
When I speak with groups about their Burke test results, I tell them that to be more learning agile, you need to be able to access all nine dimension of learning agility.
So how do I get my sales guys to slow down and my scientists to speed up?
I am currently reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. In the book, Kahneman describes the fact that there are different thought processes involved in doing something quickly versus methodically. As part of those separate processes (fast and slow), you focus on different aspects of the same narrative.
Back in 2000, the work of Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo mentioned “going against the grain.” Going against the grain is pretty much exactly what it sounds like - if you are a person who scores high on Speed but wants to be higher on Reflecting, you need to slow down and think about the processes you are using and how they might be improved. You should consider how you can be more effective and write it down. You also should think about the consequences of your actions and what you might do differently.
If you are the scientist who wants to be better at Speed, you need to pick up the pace. You need to look at how long it is taking to perform an analysis and reduce the time by 50 percent. You must force yourself to not identify every valuable in a situation but rather the top three that account for 80 percent of the problem. You should put yourself in a situation in which you don’t have all the answers and live with that ambiguity.
Speed and Reflecting are learning agility dimensions that don’t naturally complement one another. But understanding how they can present themselves as polarities can help you to develop both qualities so they can coexist.
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