Learning Agility: What It Is and How to Assess It

Posted 4 weeks ago by
Learning Agility

It has become apparent in recent months that the whole world can pivot on a dime, and unless you’re in possession of a crystal ball, you won’t know what the next challenge is or when you’ll face it.

So if you’re building a future-proof organization, you need to make sure that you’re hiring leaders and employees who can thrive in an ever-evolving environment. And for that, learning agility is extremely important.

Warner Burke, Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University says that of all the leaders hired, 50% of those fail at what they were hired to do. Why? Because they lack learning agility.  

But what exactly is learning agility? Why is it crucial for organizations? And what can you do from a recruitment standpoint to reduce the instances of hiring leaders who lack agile learning? More specifically, how do you assess candidates on their learning agility? Read on to find out more!

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What is learning agility?

Before we delve into the importance of learning agility at your organization and how you can assess candidates for this competency, let’s take a look at what the term actually means, and therefore what you’re looking for in candidates. 

In a nutshell, learning agility is a set of complex skills that enable us to learn something new in one place and then apply what we learned elsewhere, in a wholly different situation.

  • •  It’s our ability to learn, adapt, unlearn, and relearn to keep up with constantly changing conditions.
  • •  It’s how we can figure out a way through a new situation without actually knowing what to do, by using past and present experience to make sense of an uncertain situation. 
  • •  It’s being open to new ideas, to innovate through an unknown problem rather than rely on outdated information. 

When you’re an agile learner, you’re comfortable being uncomfortable. 

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Future Shock, Alvin Toffler (1970)

An agile learner has the mindset that allows them to continually develop their understanding, to grow and use new strategies that they’ve learned along the way, in order to ready themselves to successfully navigate any future problems.

Learning agility isn’t something that everyone is born with, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it. It’s a skill that can be taught and learned at any stage in life. And like a muscle, if you want your learning agility to grow stronger, you need to constantly work at it.

Being able to call yourself an agile learner isn’t about what you have accomplished previously, it’s about the potential you have to accomplish future tasks.

Hiring and retaining highly learning agile individuals helps you build an engaged workforce.

Why is learning agility so important for organizations?

Toffler was ahead of his time in his deduction of future needs with his definition of illiteracy in the 21st century. If organizations want to succeed, they need to have leaders who possess learning agility because it’s a reliable indicator of a person’s leadership potential. As we mentioned above – 50% of hired leaders will fail at their job because they lack this precise skill.

Successful leaders manage disruption, they roll with the punches and adapt their strategies accordingly, in order to deliver success for the company. In short, exceptional leaders are adaptable, resilient, and open to thinking innovatively.

According to the Korn Ferry Institute, learning agility should be considered the single best predictor of an executive leader’s success, ranking it above intelligence and education.

Possessing learning agility means leaders are capable of unlearning old beliefs and practices that are no longer relevant in today’s business; it unshackles them, allowing them to seek out and learn from new experiences, enabling them to:

  • •  Confidently make high-quality decisions on the spot. Connect the dots and make better, faster decisions even without compelling or complete data to work from.
  • •  Develop innovative solutions based on their ability to unlearn old solutions that no longer work.
  • •  See the bigger picture – look beyond what they already know and integrate unrelated pieces of information to gain a better perspective.
  • •  Be adaptable in their approach to a complex issue. Be open to sudden or unexpected change and be flexible – this comes from their hunger and drive to succeed, to find a way around a stumbling block with their agile learning. 
  • •  Deal with unfamiliarity/uncertainty confidently, rather than shy away from new and strange situations. Possessing the ability of agile learning means leaders are continually adapting to new business strategies, embracing working across cultures, taking remote working and dealing with temporary virtual teams in their stride, taking on new tasks but remaining unfazed when handed unfamiliar assignments. 
  • •  Fill leadership roles effectively and rocket up the ranks. While there are no definite numbers, Korn Ferry research shows that people with high learning agility are promoted twice as fast as individuals with low learning agility.
  • •  Improve executive engagement as executives with high levels of learning agility are more likely to be highly engaged in their work.
  • •  Innovate. People who don’t possess learning agility tend to over-rely on past solutions to deal with current problems rather than look for new solutions. They also have ignorance of their own faults and be deaf to feedback.

Agile Leaders and ProfitLearning agility does not only make your leadership more effective, it also makes your organization more profitable.

Stop guessing,
Start data-driven hiring.

Learn how you implement a modern candidate selection process, that is: streamlined, experience-driven and backed by data.

Dimensions of learning agility

Dr. W. Warner Burke, Thorndike Professor of Psychology at the Teachers College at Columbia University, has found a way to measure learning agility.

Based on 4 years of initial research, he determined that people who are more learning agile demonstrate their agility in 9 different ways, of which flexibility and speed are the main drivers.

These 9 ways are:

  1. Speed – Acting on ideas quickly so that those not working are discarded and other possibilities are accelerated. It allows you to pivot quicker, to grow faster.
  2. Flexibility – Being open to new ideas and proposing new solutions.
  3. Experimenting – Trying out new behaviors (i.e., approaches, ideas) to determine what is effective.
  4. Performance Risk Taking – Seeking new activities (i.e. tasks, assignments, roles) that provide opportunities to be challenged. To stretch oneself by actively looking for ambiguous situations. This allows you to open your mind to new thoughts and ideas. By sticking to what you know anchors you in your approach, limiting your ability to innovate. 
  5. Interpersonal Risk Taking – Discussing differences with others in ways that lead to learning and change. Being able to admit mistakes and seek help when you’ve gone wrong are key qualities of a great leader. Being open to admitting one’s mistakes encourages others in the team to take risks without fear of repercussions if it doesn’t go well. It creates a psychologically safe environment for them to operate.
  6. Collaborating – Finding ways to work with others that generate unique opportunities for learning. Being able to work with different working styles demonstrates empathy and a low ego – it means you’ll do whatever it takes to successfully achieve results for the organization.
  7. Information gathering – Using various methods to remain current in one’s area of expertise.
  8. Feedback seeking – Asking others for feedback on one’s ideas and overall performance. To increase our ability to learn, we have to be willing to receive feedback on how we are doing. 
  9. Reflecting – Slowing down to evaluate one’s own performance in order to be more effective. Once feedback has been received, you have to be able to reflect on the feedback, both positive and negative, act on it, and adjust behavior.

Learning Agility and PotentialWhen selecting candidates with high learning agility for your organization, you’re also making sure they have the right potential to develop.

Best practices for assessing learning agility

When you’re hiring employees for positions where learning agility is predictive for success such as leadership roles or management trainees, it’s important that you assess it in your recruitment process. How exactly can you do this?

1. Use a relevant dedicated learning agility assessment 

A dedicated learning agility assessment is the best tool you can have at your disposal to assess candidates for agile learning. When you carry out the assessment, make sure that all candidates are aware of what they’re being tested on and why you’re testing them.

2. Consider the relationship between cognitive ability and learning agility

Cognitive ability is an important aspect in relation to learning agility. Smarter does not necessarily mean more learning agile. But an individual needs to have a certain level of cognitive ability to be able to be learning agile.

Therefore the combination of a learning agility assessment and a cognitive ability test makes a powerful couple when assessing candidates.

3. Ask interview questions focused on learning agility and the candidate’s ability to adapt

In your structured interview process, ask open-ended questions such as:

  • •  ‘Tell me about a time when you asked for feedback from your boss or a colleague. Who did you solicit the feedback from? What was the feedback you were given? Why did you want the feedback?’
  • •  ‘Tell me about a time when you made a mistake at work. What was the mistake you made and what did you learn? Who did you tell about your mistake? How did they react to the news?’
  • •  ‘Tell me about a time when you had to do something you’d never done before. How did you feel about it? What did you learn doing it?’
  • •  To test a candidate’s ability to roll with the punches and adapt to a novel situation, ask them ‘what if’ style questions to try and resolve. For example: ‘What if you were given a new task to complete, what steps would you take to get started on it.’
  • •  When the candidate confidently answers the ‘what if’ question, throw in a curveball and test their speed and flexibility to solve problems. Remove a resource, reduce their budget or time, and ask them how they would reach the same outcome in these different circumstances. 

You’re looking for responses that demonstrate the key behaviors of learning agility as identified by Burke, which include: feedback-seeking, interpersonal risk-taking, collaboration, experimentation, and reflection, as well as speed and flexibility.

Mettl Learning Agility Matrix

Mettl Learning Agility Matrix explains how learning agility demanded by a role and learning agility of an employee relate to each other.

4. Provide training to current employees

If you want to determine where gaps are in learning agility among your existing employees, provide them with training on Burke’s 9 dimensions of learning agility. Doing this will enable employees to recognize the exact behaviors that people with those exact skills demonstrate.

Once employees understand what it means to be an agile learner, they can identify which dimension they are lacking, or where they have been underperforming in order to improve.


Learning agility is an extremely important competency for leaders. So if you’re hoping to develop future leaders and changemakers, make sure you assess your candidates for this skill in your recruitment process.

However, also pay attention to developing this skill among your employees once you’ve hired them. These strategies will help you build and retain a strong, future-proof workforce.

Stop guessing,
Start data-driven hiring.

Learn how you implement a modern candidate selection process, that is: streamlined, experience-driven and backed by data.


Alexandra Johnson is a seasoned writer specializing in HR, recruitment and tech topics. When she isn’t at her desk writing, she’s researching tech developments.