Learning Agility: How to Become a Learning Ninja

by Julie Winkle Giulioni | Posted | Learning

Learning Agility: How to Become a Learning Ninja

Given the speed of business, the ever-evolving ‘new normal’, and the fact that the only thing that’s constant is change… the ability to learn nimbly, quickly and eternally is a minimum requirement for most jobs today. The half-life of knowledge grows increasingly short while complexity and ambiguity loom large. And stellar performers across industries and sectors understand that the skills and abilities that got them where they are today may be woefully inadequate when they wake up tomorrow.

Remaining relevant and effective means buying into the non-negotiable need for perpetual growth and development. It means becoming a learning ninja.

What are learning ninjas?

You’ve seen them – or heard stories. Learning ninjas are the people who adapt quickly and always seem to be one step ahead. They seem to anticipate changes and stealthily prepare to support them. They have a sixth sense for what they’ll need to know to be effective in the future. They learn more rapidly, pivot more fluidly, and succeed more frequently than others.

While this kind of ninja magic (which could also be characterized as ‘learning agility’) appears effortless and natural to some, it’s not an inborn trait. Rather, it’s a set of practices that anyone can adopt and over time incorporate into their daily habits.

What learning ninjas do that make them awesome

Learning ninjas behave a little differently than the rest of us. Watch them and you’ll see that they consistently:

1. Demonstrate curiosity

Real ninjas survive based upon vigilance, a pervasive attention to their environments and the threats that might present themselves. Learning ninjas thrive based upon curiosity and an insatiable inquisitiveness about how things are changing, what works (and doesn’t), and what might be possible. They routinely explore the organization’s strategy, other disciplines, and best practices with those inside and outside of their usual networks. They’re always looking around the corner, asking ‘why?’ and ‘what if…?’

2. Welcome challenges

Throwing oneself into novel situations, difficult projects, ambiguous operating conditions and complex interpersonal and organizational dynamics is the surest way to promote rapid learning. Just doing more of what you’re currently doing may offer incremental growth; but it won’t promote positively disruptive steps forward or build the mental muscle associated with learning agility. As a result, becoming a learning ninja means pressing beyond comfort zones and recognizing the developmental benefits that difficulty delivers.

3. Make decisions and take action despite incomplete information

Certainty is one of the mortal enemies of the learning ninja. In today’s environment, it’s no longer feasible to wait until all of the data is in to take action. Instead, progress and continuous learning demand making peace with limited information and honing the ability to balance risk with action. Will it always turn out perfectly? Absolutely not. But waiting for perfect information given dynamic business conditions could make for a very long wait, and, in the process, thwart business objectives and the ability to learn.

4. Experiment, take risks, and live with failure

The reason learning ninjas can confidently take action in the presence of imperfect information is because they aren’t afraid of failure. They recognize that doing something different can be dangerous – and yet it’s the surest way to accelerate learning. Ninja learners let go of the need to be right or look good in favor of experimenting, exploring and growing. They know that failure is rarely fatal and have developed the resilience to fall, get up, brush themselves off, and try again.

5. Hold knowledge and best practices lightly

Agile learning is based in large part upon the perpetual ability to add appropriate new approaches, skills and practices. But, being willing to let go of something that’s worked in the past is equally important. Learning ninjas consistently assess their processes and their results. They leverage what’s working today with the knowledge that tomorrow they might have to abandon it in favor of something more effective.

Today’s business environment is fraught with dangers – from disruptive market forces to global competitors to game-changing demographic and environmental shifts. Protecting oneself and one’s organization demands the ability not just to perform at ever-greater levels but to learn at an ever-increasing pace. The workplace warrior who’ll win in this environment is the learning ninja.

Linking Learning and Performance

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Linking Learning and Performance

Link learning and employee performance to achieve business goals.


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