How to Become a More Agile Learner

By Tim Peek
YPO Certified Forum Facilitator

Pop quiz: Is it more valuable to have the right answer or to know how to find it?

Leaders spend a lot of time producing the right answers: solving a manufacturing problem, submitting a winning proposal, setting the right price — correct answers like these are essential to success.

It’s one thing to have the right answer today, or even many days in a row. It’s something else to come up with the right answer year after year in a volatile landscape where there is high ambiguity and complexity.

The key to success? Learning agility, fueled by curiosity. Learning agility is the ability to quickly take in new information and act on it. This is a core skill for creating sustainable success.

Knowing this, successful leaders are more interested in being curious than in being right.

Are you an agile learner?

How do you know if you are an agile learner? Curious leaders are:

  • Open to feedback, positive or negative.
  • Question their assumptions.
  • Celebrate their critics.
  • Value mistakes as learning experiences (as long as they don’t make the same mistake twice).

Leaders who are not curious:

  • Attack the messenger and find fault with the message or the way it was delivered.
  • Use a lot of absolute language such as “never” and “always.”
  • Say “we have to” or “we should” a lot.
  • Believe it’s most important to be right.

Steve Jobs: Slow learner

My favorite example of low learning agility comes from one of the most creative and successful business minds, Steve Jobs.

Remember the iPhone 4? It had a serious flaw. When you held the phone in your hand, your fingers would interfere with the antennae and degrade its reception. One early user named Aram noticed this and emailed Jobs about it. Here’s their exchange:

Aram: Hi Mr. Jobs: I love my new iPhone 4 (nice work) but when I put my hand on the steel bands I lose all reception. It appears to be a common issue. Any plans to fix this?

Steve Jobs: Just avoid holding it in that way.

Jobs was more interested in being right than in learning about the problem. Who can blame him? He and his team spent years developing a product that was critical to the company’s future, and here was some random consumer complaining about it.

How to increase your learning agility

How can success leaders increase their learning agility?

  • Take a few deep and centering breaths to reduce fear-induced reactivity and open you up to curiosity.
  • Rather than locking themselves in a conference room to have tough conversations, agile learners stand up, move around and even have walking meetings.
  • Engage with critics. Complainers give them valuable information for improvement.
  • Ask “what are the other possibilities?” instead of defending their original idea.
  • Explore the opposite of their beliefs to surface new information and free themselves from the tyranny of past success.

Try some of these exercises the next time you notice you’re tempted to defend yourself or your work. You’ll be surprised what a difference curiosity can make.

Tim Peek is a former NBC News executive, current YPO certified forum facilitator and executive coach with the Conscious Leadership Group.

Every CEO needs somewhere to turn for the insight and perspective only trusted peers can provide. In YPO, the supreme sounding board is forum. Around the world in 3,800 forums, small groups of members – and small groups of their spouses and young adult children – meet in an atmosphere of confidentiality, respect and trust. Most members say forum is their most valued asset, because the maxim holds true: it can be lonely at the top, but it doesn't have to be. YPO members, spouses, management team and YPO certified forum facilitators (CFF) are contributors of the articles below. CFFs are a specialized group of 100 highly skilled professionals with a deep understanding of forum process and protocol. Each CFF has completed a rigorous application, interview and certification process that requires peer recommendations.