Learning agility is a hot topic in my work as a leadership and HR consultant. It also can be a concept that’s difficult to grasp because many people define it differently.
Sometimes an illustration can help make sense of a complicated definition, and I've found a good example of learning agility in Tom Hank’s latest movie, "Bridge of Spies."
Before I tell you about the movie (and reveal the ending), I’m going to share what I think is the best definition of learning agility. It comes from Warner Burke, Ph.D., a colleague and friend who is also a professor and does research at Teachers College, Columbia University.:
Learning agility has to do with both a set of skills and a willingness to try things. The skill set means being able to learn from one’s experiences in real time, to actively rather than passively interject a way to change the situation so that you can learn from what is happening, especially when you’re in a situation where you don’t know what to do. Flexibility is a very important component of learning agility.
There’s something else that Burke discovered in his research on learning agility, a component that other definitions usually ignore: Beyond the skill set, you must be willing to stick your neck out and experience failure. You have to take in feedback and be able to use the feedback to adjust what you are doing.
How is Tom Hanks’ role as James B. Donovan in "Bridge of Spies" an excellent example of learning agility? Donovan, an insurance lawyer, is invited to serve as counsel for Rudolf Abel, a man who has been arrested as a Soviet spy. It appears that Abel’s guilt is a foregone conclusion according to the prosecuting attorney and the judge. Once Donovan accepts the role of defense council, he attempts to present the best defense he can. His client is found guilty. Donovan attempts to influence the judge (borderline legal) to grant life in prison versus the death penalty. His rationale is that his client could be used as a bargaining chip should the Soviet Union capture an American spy. As chance would have it, Francis Gary Powers, an American pilot, is shot down over the Soviet Union, captured and accused of being a spy.
It is at this point that Donovan’s true test of learning agility begins. He is brought to a meeting “unofficially” by the U.S. government. His mission as a U.S. citizen is to meet with the Soviets at the Soviet Embassy in East Berlin. At this point in the Cold War, neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union has officially recognized the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany as it was less formally known.
Donovan is briefed by his U.S. handlers in a dumpy hotel (it is so cold you can see your breath) in West Berlin. He is given the address of the Soviet Embassy. He starts to put the address in his pocket and is told to memorize the address (learning agility). The address is subsequently set on fire and burned. He then is shown a map of Berlin including the location of the embassy. He is told to remember the map but cannot take it with him (learning agility). He is told to beware of roving gangs in East Berlin.
The next morning Hanks as Donovan takes the train from West Berlin to East Berlin. He is trying to find the Soviet Embassy. He encounters a gang who relieves him of his expensive topcoat. He has a bad cold and it is snowing. He finally finds the Soviet Embassy and asks for a certain person. He is led into a back room and is greeted by a middle-age woman, a young woman in her 20s, and a middle-age man. They claim to be Abel’s wife, daughter and uncle. Clearly there is no family relationship.
Another gentleman enters the room in a military uniform, but his name is still not the one that Donovan was given. The “family” is ushered out of the room and Hanks and this gentleman begin discussing the idea of an exchange of Powers for Abel. The Soviets want this to be a government-to-government exchange. Donovan is “encouraged” to facilitate the Abel/Powers exchange, although there is no official U.S. sanction.
There is one other twist. The East Germans are in the process of building the wall between the east and west parts of Berlin. The completion of the wall occurs a few days before Donovan’s arrival. There is a U.S. doctoral student from Yale University completing his dissertation on the economic situation in Berlin and has been moving back and forth between East Berlin and West Berlin. The wall is completed and the student is detained trying to go from East Berlin to West Berlin. East German leaders want to use the student as a pawn so that the U.S. will recognize it as a sovereign entity. The Soviets could care less. U.S. government officials do not care because they are not involved, and by the way, do not recognize the GDR.
Donovan will only do a three-way deal. The exchange of Powers and Abel must be done on the bridge between East Berlin and West Berlin. The doctoral student must be exchanged at Checkpoint Charlie. Donovan successfully completes the three-way exchange.
I do not know of a better example to illustrate learning agility.
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