Tip #799: How to Be an Agile Learner

“Ultimately, our ability to continuously learn and adapt will determine the extent to which we thrive in today’s turbulent times.” Adam Mitchinson and Robert Morris

When I first heard about agile learners, I thought they just learned more quickly than other learners. However, my research reveals that agile learners have many more qualities that are increasingly necessary in this volatile, uncertain, changing and ambiguous world.

Definition of Agile Learner

One source defines learning agility as “the ability and willingness to learn from all kinds of experience and use those lessons to perform effectively in new and different situations…an individual’s adaptability in learning new ways of coping with unforeseen problems and opportunities.”

A White Paper written by Adam Mitchinson and Robert Morris for The Center for Creative Leadership adds the qualities of continually being able to give up skills, perspectives, and ideas that are no longer relevant, and learn new ones that are.

Five Facets of Agile Learning

Research at Teachers College, Columbia University, has led to the identification of five main facets of learning- agile behavior. Of these five facets, there are four that enable learning agility (Innovating, Performing, Reflecting, and Risking) and one that frustrates it (Defending).

Here are the five facets, as described by The Center for Creative Leadership:


Innovating: questioning the status quo and challenging long-held assumptions with a goal to discovering new and unique ways of doing things.

Performing: remaining present and engaged, handling the stress brought on by ambiguity and ultimately adapting quickly in order to perform.

Reflecting: hungry for feedback and spending focused energy processing information to better understand their own assumptions and behavior.

Risking: venturing into unknown territory and putting oneself “out there” to try new things where success is not always guaranteed.


Defending: remaining closed or defensive when challenged or given critical feedback.

Personality Traits of High Learning-Agile Individuals

High learning-agile individuals (i.e. individuals who score highly on the four Learning Enabler dimensions and low on the one Learning Derailer dimension) are more likely to have the following traits, based on the Workplace Big Five Profile personality assessment:

They are more extraverted and more likely to take charge. They are more original, more likely to be creative, seek complexity and readily accept change. They are more focused, organized, drive and methodical. They are more resilient, rebounding from stressful events more quickly, and calmer and more optimistic. They are less accommodating, being more likely to challenge others and express their opinions.

How to Become More Learning Agile

Suggestions for becoming more learning agile:

To Innovate: challenge the status quo in an attempt to make improvements and experiment with new ideas. Come up with new solutions to problems even if tried and true solutions exist.

To Perform: stay calm when faced with a challenge or stressful situation and pick up on subtle clues to build a better understanding of a problem. Ask questions to understand and actively listen to the answers. When feeling stressed, take time to consider what is really required before responding.

To Reflect: make time to critically reflect on your experiences and examine past failures for lessons. Ask a trusted person to provide open and honest feedback, and conduct after action reviews.

To Take Risks: volunteer for roles that are ambiguous, new, or otherwise challenging and enjoy struggling with a challenging problem. Take on a new challenge that scares you, something that is meaningful but not so important that failure will have serious personal consequences. Ask for help and support from others.

To Avoid Being Defensive: consider your personal role in both successes and failures and seek feedback. View feedback as a gift, even if it is uncomfortable. Avoid generating excuses.

When I compare myself with the personality traits of an agile learner, I know that I’m very focused and willing to take risks. I do tend to take charge, but I’m an introvert, not an extravert. I try to be creative and learn from criticism instead of getting defensive. I have little trouble speaking up if I disagree with something. I am NOT as resilient and calm as I would like to be, but that is a continuing work in progress.

How about you?

May your learning be sweet.


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