To Innovate We Must be Willing to Learn a Lot!

 To Innovate We Must be Willing to Learn a Lot! In ProVoke, I talk about the necessity to be uncomfortable before we are ready to disrupt and innovate. We need to be uncomfortable because pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone is hard work and is unsettling.

Learning new things means admitting that we are not experts in all areas and that we are willing to improve our learning agility. Yes, we all have great excuses why we don’t learn new things (if we are willing to be honest)! But, here is the reality: the rate and intensity of innovation is directly related to our agility and willingness to learn. Innovation does not happen in a vacuum, and it does not happen because we mandate innovation to others. So, to my top executive friends, colleagues and clients, this is what we need to do:

1) Lead by example! Improve the depth and diversity of your own learning agility.

2) Make time and replace excuses with new learnings. Challenge your company, your staff and colleagues to up the bar!

3) Find the true link between learning agility and the rate of innovation in your company. See the magic!

The Magic:

People want to follow those who are constantly learning and challenging themselves and creating the “what-if” magic (Culture) around them. This is the spark we need for creating the Culture of Innovation. This is what creates true innovation leadership.

So, I needed to find supporting thoughts around the link between learning agility, innovation and leadership.

Learning Agility: Critical for Innovative Leadership!

I recently came across a fascinating area of research from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), a division of the American Psychological Association. According to the SIOP, learning agility is an individual’s ability and willingness to learn from experience. Our ability and desire to learn from experiences determines how much we adapt our behavior and our ways of thinking in response to these experiences. In other words, adaptation from critical experiences requires learning from such events, which in turn requires being able and willing to learn (learning agility). The importance of learning agility cannot be overstated. In fields that are rapidly changing and require a high degree of adaptation, such as technology and business, learning agility has a major impact on performance. Individuals (and companies) high in learning agility, who can and want to learn and adapt from experiences, whether positive or negative, often outmaneuver less agile competitors. The concept of learning agility is most often applied to leadership, because the vision, attitudes and ability of leaders often guide the direction of their companies.

What does an agile learner (and agile leader) look like? While institutions vary in their definitions of learning agility, the SIOP offers a useful calculus of learning agility. First, agile learners are willing to explore new challenges; imagine what could be or what could have been; and examine mistakes and admit responsibility. Second, they are able to observe situational cues; connect situational patterns; and evaluate performance using feedback. Together, this willingness and ability lead to learning practices which make agile learners so successful: they experiment purposefully and observe outcome; assess the situation vigilantly and reflect; and continually synthesize and refine models of why things happen.

How can companies grow the amount of learning agility in their leadership? By selecting and/or developing agile learners, according to the SIOP. Research has found that a small percentage of the population is naturally high in learning agility. So, companies can screen for agile learners based on stable traits related to learning agility, and increase their flow into the leadership pipeline. (Screening methods include self-assessment inventories or measures of relevant personality or cognitive factors, such as openness to experience, mental flexibility, and learning orientation). In addition, companies must rigorously develop the key skills and habits of learning agility among all of their current or potential leaders. (Development methods range from 360-based or simulation-based tools and learning agility ratings, to planned exposure pathways to key experiences and structured reflection processes on lessons learned). A combination of these “select” and “develop” strategies is critical, because while the number of existing agile learners is limited, the potential to develop agility in existing and future leaders is boundless.

The implications for learning agility on innovation are profound, because learning and adapting are the lifeblood of innovation. Innovating demands that leaders envision the impossible, seek challenges as opportunities, and learn from their mistakes. It requires being willing to take risks and being open to experimenting (and failing) as opportunities for reflection and growth. And it cannot happen without agile awareness of what is happening in the innovative ecosystems all around. I suggest that all leaders take a moment to stop and consider how agile a learner they really are. The tools for increasing our ability to learn and adapt are out there – just check out Korn/Ferry, the Hay Group, and the Center for Creative Leadership. I wish us all a future of unlimited learning!

Would love to hear your thoughts!

References: Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. 2012. “Learning Agility” [online webcast]. In SIOP Mini-Webinar Series. Retrieved from 110812/. image credit: mark brannan

Follow @ixchat on twitter

Wait! Before you go…

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:

Linda Bernardi




Carbon neutrality: what is it, how to achieve it and why you should care

By Hubert Day | June 22, 2022

When sustainability is on the agenda, you’re likely to hear many terms mentioned that you may or may not be…

Read More

No Comments

  1. Jonathan Darker on October 8, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    Awesome article, makes a lot of sense. Just a difficult read with the background.

  2. Braden Kelley on October 9, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Sorry about that. Often times, refreshing the page will resolve this.


  3. Jason Williams on October 14, 2013 at 10:48 am

    Great stuff Linda and so true. In many ways, innovation is connecting the dots with what we already know. One of my favorite quotes is: “if you want to connect more dots, you’ve got to put more dots on the page”, author unknown. Adding more dots requires a curiosity to learn as much as we can.

Leave a Comment