Decades ago, in a Harvard Business Review article, “How I Learned to Let My Workers Lead,” the founder and CEO of a food company made this connection between learning and agility, “Learning is change, and I keep learning and relearning that change is and needs to be continuous… change is the real job of every effective business leader because change is about the present and the future, not about the past. There is no end to change.” This belief drove the CEO to build “a company that never stops learning… learning, striving people are happy people and good workers. They have initiative and imagination, and the companies they work for are rarely caught napping.” Ralph Stayer retired in 2015 having built Johnsville Foods from nothing to over one billion in sales.
Agility is becoming a major focus for many organizations today. For good reason. Our pace of change is accelerating through a relentless demand for better, faster, and cheaper. Merriam-Webster defines agility as “marked by ready ability to move with quick easy grace” and “having a quick, resourceful and adaptable character.”
A Zenger Folkman study showed how a very strong learning organization impacts commitment levels:
Stretching, growing, and learning is invigorating. When we’re stimulated and challenged we’re energized and engaged. Work is transformed from a job to a joy. In an agile, learning organization problems are resolved quickly. And then they’re used as opportunities for continuous improvement. Openness, transparency, and collaboration means decisions are made quickly with high buy-in and ownership for implementation. Leaders make tough calls and communicate why. “Fast failure” with lots of pilots and experiments help everyone learn what works best. Data and feedback shifts leadership behaviors and guides continuous process improvements.
Learning and adaptability lead to much higher discretionary effort. This creates highly engaged and agile organizations moving at or ahead of the speed of change. How’s your team or organization doing? How do you know? Where’s your measurement data?