Our knowledge is in constant flux.

-Samuel Arbesman


Given recent economic and social upheavals, more emphasis than ever is being placed on adaptability, and obtaining the right information at the right time.

Facts are changing more quickly than ever before, according to the HBR article Be Forewarned: Your Knowledge is Decaying. While some facts are constantly changing in obvious ways, and others are likely to remain the same throughout our lifetimes, we need to pay particular attention to facts that we assume we know, but that in reality are shifting without us being aware of it.

To keep pace with these changes and make sound business decisions, leaders and their teams must practice nimble learning as part of a broader organizational learning culture.

Nimble learning can be defined as a just-in-time process of acquiring relevant and accurate information in response to a rapidly changing environment to support necessary action.

A nimble learner is characterized by an openness and vulnerability to ask for help when unsure of the best course of action. They learn quickly, are unafraid of the new and unfamiliar, and embrace all experiences as learning opportunities.

The nimble learning mindset opens the mind to the simple questions most people overlook, such as

  • Why are we doing this?
  • Do we need to do this?
  • What happens if we don't do this?

Additionally, it allows new questions to be asked from a place of possibility.

This is the place in which innovation can happen.

Here are 4 specific, simple, and cost-effective practices to help leaders enhance the nimble learning capabilities of their teams, their organizations, and themselves.

1. Use a 50:50 approach to Solving Problems

“In studies of problem-solving sessions, solutions outweigh questions eight to one,” according to Michael M. Lombardo in FYI: For Your Improvement. Most people have a penchant for prematurely jumping into problem solving without first taking the time to properly define and understand the problem.

To encourage nimble learning amongst your team members and ensure you are considering all relevant facts, it is helpful to strive for balance between questions and solutions. Lombardo suggests, “Set aside the first 50% of the time for questions and problem definition and the last 50% of the time for solutions.”

Here are some questions to facilitate your implementation of this approach:

  • As you think about your organization, how much time are you spending on problem definition?
  • Are you asking the right questions?
  • Are you double-checking key assumptions (using the most up-to-date facts)?

2. Assign a Fact Checker

Many teams regularly ask members to play different roles (timekeeper, devil’s advocate, etc.) as a way to enhance team effectiveness. One way to promote nimble learning is to include the role of “Fact Checker.” This role helps the team ensure it is working with the most current facts, especially related to key assumptions. A couple things to keep in mind regarding the Fact Checker role:

  • It should provide context to facts in question
  • It should facilitate transparency regarding information sources

3. Look Back to Look Forward

When was the last time your organization took the time to learn from an experience – a product launch, an acquisition, a promotional campaign, a new sales approach, etc.?

“The best way to become a nimble learner is to take the time to consider what you have learned from an experience and then apply that learning to future situations,” according to Lombardo.

An excellent example of this practice exists within elite military units. Learnings from each day’s operations must be incorporated into the next day's operations. If not…well, it is literally a matter of life and death.

You can practice this on your own by pausing, reflecting, and keeping a learning journal. Alternatively, you can practice this with others by conducting after-action reviews and asking questions that look back and look forward:

  • What helpful behavioral patterns did we display?
  • What harmful behavioral patterns did we display?
  • What facts were missing from our process?
  • What facts should we consider next time?
  • What do we want to carry forward to help us face future challenges successfully?

Note that there can be a tendency during this exercise to focus on actions specific to the initiative under review. However, this evaluation needs to go beyond the specific actions to examine behavioral patterns that can span multiple scenarios.

4. Use “Spot Coaching”

Intentionally seek out “spot coaching” for specific situations – from a professional coach, a board member, the CEO, a peer, or even a lower-level employee who has specific subject-matter expertise.

The key with all four of these practices is intentionality.

Many organizations profess, or aspire to be, so-called “learning organizations, but the sad reality is that few ever achieve it.

Without a relentless focus on structured learning, leaders who aspire to be “nimble” merely become leaders who quickly change direction – potentially for the worse.

While this list of 4 practices is by no means exhaustive, it provides approaches that can yield very real results for leaders and their organizations.

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