Learning Agility

Guest Post by Colonel Jose A. DeVarona

The U.S. Army is in transition after sixteen years of conflict. Previously, the nation leveraged its industrial base to support a decisive edge over the enemy. Material solutions are not enough to maintain the advantage in a future of strategic uncertainty and rapidly adapting peer and near-peer threats. Leadership – the “L” in the DOTMLPF-P construct – is perhaps the most critical asset to our nation. The U.S. Army will establish overmatch by investing into its most valued commodity, the leaders of its irreplaceable soldiers. Learning agility provides the necessary framework to support leader overmatch in the future of conflict.

This is a guest post from Colonel Jose A. DeVarona, adapted from a Strategy Paper he wrote during his U.S. Army War College Fellowship at Columbia University. Written in 2016, available in its original form, with all citations, HERE. Col. DeVarona has over 25 years of service as an Active Duty Infantry Officer. He has Commanded tactical units up to the battalion-level and recently served as a Regimental Tactical Officer at the United States Military Academy. He works in Training & Security Cooperation at 3rd U.S. Army, Army Central Command.

The Human Dimension

The U.S. Army Human Dimension Strategy provides a comprehensive plan to aid in developing agile and adaptive leaders of character to successfully lead the transition into a globally responsive, agile, and lethal ground force. This is a new strategic challenge for the Army. Prior to the Global War of Terror, the U.S. Army developed leaders to fight a known conventional enemy, with a known doctrinal order of battle, on a known battlefield. Since September 11, 2001, U.S. Army forces have deployed to relatively unknown environments in which leaders must quickly gain an understanding of rapidly developing, complex, and chaotic situations while collaborating with joint, interagency, and coalition partners to build a cohesive team and achieve operational success. In fact, we can safely assume that this trend will continue in the future.

The 2018 National Security Strategy describes future threats ranging from continued Russian aggression, cyber-attacks, violent extremism, terrorism both abroad and on the homeland, and infectious diseases. More than ever before, the U.S. Army needs agile leaders who can rapidly learn from previous experiences and apply relevant lessons to evolving complex situations.

Learning Agility

Learning Agility is a relatively new concept. It consists of an individual’s ability and willingness to learn from a previous experience and apply relevant lessons to new situations. This concept sheds light on why some people learn faster and display more flexibility in their learning. Skill and Motivation are the two primary components to Learning Agility. Skill consists of how an individual distinguishes whether what one learned from a previous experience is applicable to a new and different experience. Motivation is an individual’s willingness to take both performance and interpersonal risk when faced with a situation in which one does not necessarily know what to do or what the outcome of one’s actions might be.

Learning Agility is a “combination of motivation – being willing to face new and perhaps ambiguous situations by taking actions that help one to stay engaged”, and “the skill to discern quickly the consequences of these actions determining what to do next to continue the process of learning”. Dr. Burke’s Learning Agility Inventory measures the observable behaviors associated with Learning Agility. There are a total of thirty-eight behaviors grouped into nine dimensions: feedback seeking, information seeking, performance risk taking, interpersonal risk taking, collaborating, experimenting, reflecting, flexibility, and speed. If these behaviors are measurable, then leaders can develop them to strengthen these behaviors. To better understand Learning Agility we need to understand two theoretical frameworks for learning: the Experiential Learning Theory and Learning Goal Orientation.

Theoretical Framework

An individual’s ability to learn from experience is fundamental to leadership success. Learning is a process in which a learning-agile individual demonstrates behaviors that increase the opportunities for growth. These behaviors are derived from David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory and Carol Dweck’s Learning Goal Orientation theories.

Agile learners navigate through four modes of learning:

  1. Observation and Concrete Experience
  2. Reflection
  3. Forming Hypotheses and Theories
  4. Active Experimentation

It is rare that people master all four modes of learning. Some people prefer learning from actually performing the task at hand. Others may prefer to learn through reflection. For example, concrete experience and active experimentation are different modes of grasping information from an event. Reflective observation and abstract conceptualization are different modes of transforming the information gained from the experience into knowledge. Kolb argues that people will choose one of four learning styles depending on their abilities and preference to learning: accommodators, divergers, assimilators, and convergers.

Accommodators intuitively grasp information and favor being action oriented. Accommodators tend to seek new experiences and are more willing to take prudent risk using trial and error. Divergers tend to intuitively grasp information and then attempt to make sense of their feelings. Divergers view problem sets from many perspectives and tend to formulate several different possible solutions. Assimilators focus on the logic of an argument and use inductive reasoning to create theories. Lastly, Convergers combine thinking and action into problem solving, decision-making, and pragmatism.

Figure 1. Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory model.

Leveraging the Framework

Understanding these four learning styles allows the person to leverage the knowledge to better coach, teach, and mentor others. It is about engaging your team in a way that reaches them. Leaders can also coach their soldiers toward identifying their lesser preferred styles of learning and assisting in developing those areas. While Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory addresses the skill component of Learning Agility it is Carol Dweck’s Learning Goal Orientation Theory that sheds light on the motivation component.

Studies shows that certain experiences are essential to leader development. Understanding an individual’s openness to new and challenging experiences is important to identifying and developing talent. Carol Dweck’s research suggests that people approach new tasks in one of two ways; either to develop competence or to show competence. Goal-oriented people tend to approach a task or challenge with a mindset of learning or developing competence. Individuals that are motivated to show their competence tend to favor performance goal-orientation.

“In a growth mindset challenges are exciting rather than threatening. So rather thank thinking, oh, I’m going to reveal my weaknesses, you say, wow, here’s a change to grow.” -Carol S. Dweck

Learning goal-oriented leaders tend to demonstrate more tolerance in ambiguous situations. They are more thoughtful of others, open to new and different perspectives, and are more persistent in the face of difficult or adverse situations. Performance-oriented people lack tolerance for ambiguity, lack thoughtfulness, and tend to avoid complex and challenging situations or tasks. A willingness to seek out challenging experiences correlates to an openness to learn. A learning goal-orientation develops greater learning agility. Learning, goal-oriented leaders are more likely to successfully lead their units in ambiguous and complex situations and exercise Mission Command.

Agile learners demonstrate a range of attributes and competences that are ideal for U.S. Army leaders. Agile learners tend to display the motivation to seek out and learn from new and challenging experiences. And, they garner and incorporate feedback from others. The agile learner is also effective at absorbing and processing relevant information, integrating new ideas, developing multiple courses of action, and willing to experiment with new methods.

Learning Agility: Developing Leaders and Mission Command

General Mark A. Miley’s stated, “the Army must have an openness to new ideas and ways of doing things in an increasingly complex world,” and the Army “will change and adapt.” It is clear that the Army needs leaders that can successfully lead diverse teams comprised of joint and coalition partners in ambiguous and complex situations. The behaviors associated with Learning Agility are compatible to those desired of U.S. Army leaders. Until now the U.S. Army has not had the means of measuring and developing agility. Dr. Burke’s Learning Agility Inventory and research provides the U.S. Army that ability.

The challenge for senior leaders is creating a command climate that encourages and rewards the behaviors associated with Learning Agility. Leaders must remain open to new ideas and encourage subordinates to take risks by seeking out challenging tasks without fear of failure. While new and challenging experiences are ideal for learning in a work environment, they will also create anxiety and stress to perform. Learning is less likely to occur when leaders and people do not manage the stress effectively.

Due to the nature of the profession of arms, the U.S. Army will always be a performance-focused organization. Leaders need to continue to conduct realistic training that induces physical and mental stress. It’s the leader’s responsibility to manage the amount of pressure or stress within the organization to allow learning and development to occur. Furthermore, leaders must establish a climate that rewards and builds safety in experimentation and innovation to optimize development.

Training and Doctrine Command is implementing initiatives to increase research efforts, in partnership with academic institutions, to better understand human capability development, leader development, and talent management. The Human Dimension Capabilities Development Task Force white paper on Person-Organization Fit and Mission Command also recommends that, “the Army should conduct an analytical review of the existing leadership doctrine  identify those leader attributes most essential for the effective practice of Mission Command.” The need and the desire exists to further research and understand Learning Agility. The set of attributes and competencies related to Learning Agility are applicable to U.S. Army Leader Development and Mission Command doctrine.

Click HERE to read the article in its original form with all works cited.

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