The Hidden Price of Learning Agility

Thomas Friedman has written about it, LinkedIn is peppered with posts about it, and HuffPo dubbed it the most in-demand 21 century business skill. Everyone is talking about learning agility nowadays, and it’s no wonder: we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world defined by ever-present change. The issue is: how do we thrive in it?

Through that lens, we could consider learning agility as Darwinism at its best: learn or die. How else could we become anti-fragile, recession proof or relevant when so many seismic global and workplace shifts are underway?

So let’s agree, then, that learning agility is key to surviving and thriving in this new reality. It all sounds so enticing: embracing a growth mindset, challenging oneself, and being a perpetual learner. However, few talk of the price of actually embracing these concepts and living them out. It’s not as if this price is not worth paying. Yet it is nonetheless real and deserving of some attention, if only for the purpose of being honest about the journey ahead.

To sum up this price in one word: instability … a penetrating, perpetual instability that stems from the questioning of everything: assumptions, mindsets, mental models and approaches.

This should come as no surprise: in order to thrive in a VUCA world, the instability of the outside gets transferred to the inside. The disruption and volatility of the outside world gets assumed by the individuals or organizations looking to embrace it. Therefore, thriving in perpetual change likely means that you, too, need to perpetually change … and that ain’t easy.

You’re basically signing up for a life of constant change curves, with all the pain, anger, insecurity, joy and pride associated with making it through to the next curve.

I’ve been blessed along my career with opportunities to enter environments to which I was new. People have taken a chance on me to come in without the traditional exposure to the space I was tasked to help transform, believing in the power of diversity (of experience, perspectives and approaches) as a critical component of change. What does this look like from the inside? As an individual, it’s a roller coaster — at times nauseatingly scary, at others exhilarating.

You question everything, at each and every turn, from the theoretical and external (Am I accurately seeing things for what they are? Do I need to adapt to what I’m seeing or is it the very symptom of the problem I’m supposed to tackle?), down to your very abilities, value and core (What if I am completely off base? Am I even able to do this?). The rigors of the journey are enough to push even those most capable (often precisely those most capable) to the precipice of debilitating doubt: How much can I give up, question and challenge before I’m left with nothing? How do I maintain the core of who I am and my authenticity? And what if it’s all for naught? Some look to a spirituality as their north star, others to their family.

I am reminded of a brilliant post by Michelle Rhee on the advice she received from Joel Klein before embarking on the role of chancellor of the DC school system:

“Get a boyfriend then, and let me tell you why,” he explained. “This is a lonely job. You’ll get beat up every day… The only way I survive,” he went on, “is because my wife is next to me in bed every night, soothing and reassuring me: ‘Baby, you’re not crazy; they’re the crazy ones. You’re doing the right thing.’ Without that support, I’d go nuts. So get a boyfriend.”

All around me I see friends and colleagues transforming themselves — taking on a daunting new job, an entirely new career, a far less traveled path … and it’s a creaky, bumpy roller coaster ride for all.

Now, think about all of the above, and the individual looking to thrive in this world of constant change … what are the implications of an entire organization doing so? Who is its boyfriend? If this is the challenging journey for one person, then how much more challenging is it for hundreds or thousands of them at once? How disruptive are organizational transformations really, and how effective are current change management approaches to helping organizations get there?

What are your thoughts?


Ana Maria Sencovici is addicted to unlocking human potential to achieve extraordinary results … designing and implementing learning systems, conceiving and shaping scalable talent management solutions, creating and delivering world-class leadership education and development ... LinkedIn|Twitter

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