Learning Agility

By Scott Cormode

June 22, 2017

De Pree Journal

The world will reward agility, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Every manager and entrepreneur recognizes this. But our educational system does not yet prepare people for agility. So managers and entrepreneurs will need to know how to prepare their people for agility. That process starts with understanding why today’s grads come to them without instincts for agility.

That leads us to Tom and David Kelley.[1] The Kelley brothers are respected voices in the world of innovation. David Kelley is the founder of two innovation icons: the innovation incubator firm IDEO and the Stanford School of Design (commonly called the d.school). Tom Kelley is a partner at IDEO and has written extensively on innovation. The brothers describe four “chronic fears” that prevent people from exercising the kind of creativity that is necessary for agility and innovation. They are:

  1. The fear of the messy unknown
  2. The fear of being judged
  3. The fear of the first step
  4. The fear of losing control.

The four fears have something in common. They are often particularly painful to our best students. They push against the strategies that ace students have developed for dealing with school assignments. Control is the key for such model students. They want clear expectations, clear deadlines, clear means, and clear ends. But the current world of unpredictable change specifically precludes this kind of certainty. An ace student wants predictability – because she knows that, if she has a predictable set of expectations, she can deliver a predictable (and satisfactory) set of outcomes. But the world makes no such promises. And that is why the Kelleys’ work at the Stanford d.school can be so helpful to us as we figure out how managers and entrepreneurs can cultivate agility in their people.

The Kelley brothers show that innovation and agility come by way of a different educational route than the one favored by most colleges. They do not believe in term papers and exams. Developing creativity, they believe, comes through employing multiple quick projects rather than one big project. They believe in learning from experience, specifically from reflecting on experience. Or, as John Dewey was purported to have said, “We do not learn from experience…but from reflecting on experience.”[2] But they maintain a different metric for talking about experience. They say that experience is measured in cycles of experiments not years on the job. So, a twenty-two-year old who has run one prototype a week for six months would have more experience, in their mind, than an executive who has been in the same job for twenty years. They quote the innovation scholar Diego Rodriguez, who uses the term “informed intuition,” which they take to mean that “relentless practice creates a database of experience that you can draw upon to make more enlightened choices.”[3] They believe that learning agility can happen either in a school setting or on the job. The setting does not matter. But the experience does. Because they believe that learning comes from reflection on experience, they aim to maximize the number of experiences from which a person can learn. Or, as Thomas Edison said, “The measure of success [in innovation] is the number of experiments that can be crowded into twenty-four hours.”[4] This is particularly important in situations of significant ambiguity[5] because “rapid innovation cycles” result in “reduced anxiety in the face of ambiguity.”[6]

Managers and entrepreneurs can create for their people these repeated cycles of action and reflection that help people experience what the Kelleys call “the inescapable link between failure and innovation.”[7] They describe the research of creativity scholar Dean Keith Simonton, “Creative geniuses from artists like Mozart to scientists like Darwin, are quite prolific when it comes to failure…Creative people simply do more experiments.” That is why “if you want more success, you have to be prepared to shrug off more failure.”[8]

Mangers at Google have constructed their management practices around just this kind of rapid-fire experimentation. “To innovate, you must learn to fail well,” say Google executives Schmidt and Rosenberg. “Learn from your mistakes…Morph ideas don’t kill them…Don’t stigmatize the team that failed.” To “fail well,” you must “fail quickly, but with a very long time horizon” (i.e. take the time to go through many cycles of experimental learning). All this rapid failing is necessary because innovation is an iterative process. “The key” to innovation, they say, “is to iterate quickly and to establish metrics that help you judge” how to take your next steps.[9] They emphasize that innovation is a cycle; it’s not a linear process. Each experiment leads to a new experiment. And each idea builds on what you learned from your last experiment. This calls to mind one a favorite phrase from my dissertation advisors, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing.” There is not such thing as good innovation, only good re-innovation. Innovation requires cycles of experimentation. And agility requires cycles of practice.

The Kelley brothers tell a story to illustrate how important this rapid experimentation is for learning creativity. They describe a ceramics instructor who wanted to encourage creativity. So he did an experiment. He told half of his class that they would be graded on the quality of a single art piece that would not be due until the conclusion of the course – a capstone project similar to a research paper in a seminary class. And then he told the other half of the class that they would be judged on quantity. To get an A, a student had to go through fifty pounds of clay. And, as you might imagine, the “quality” students were meticulous in crafting the one project while the “quantity” students burned through prototype after prototype. In the end, quantity beat quality. “The best pieces all came from students whose goal was quantity,” the Kelleys say, “the ones who spent the most time actually practicing their craft.”[10] They engaged in rapid rounds of experimentation and by the end of the course they had much more “experience” than their classmates. Their “enlightened trial and error” had accumulated what Diego Rodriguez had called “informed intuition” and developed what I have elsewhere called “cultivated instincts.”

In the contemporary world of rapid change, leaders who crave control will falter. The current world will reward agility. In order to develop agility, managers and entrepreneurs should aim for repeated and rapid experiments. Try as many new things as possible. Learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward. No one standing still is agile.

[1]The following paragraphs discuss the Kelley brothers’ recent book Creative Confidence (NY: Random House, 2014), which is summarized in a number of shorter venues, including: Kelley and Kelley, “Reclaim Your Creative Confidence,” Harvard Business Review (Dec 2012) 1-5; “Creative Confidence: The Path from Blank Page to Insight,” Rotman Management (Winter 2014) 17-21; and David Kelley, “How to Build Your Creative Confidence,” TED Talk, available at http://www.ted.com/talks/david_kelley_how_to_build_your_creative_confidence?language=en.
[2] I use the word “purported” because the origin of this quotation is disputed. It is regularly quoted in educational literature and even has a reference of Dewey, How We Think (Boston: DC Heath & Co, 1933) p. 78. The problem is that I have yet to find a copy of How We Think that has that quote in it. An Internet search – say, through GoogleBooks – cannot find it either. So all I can do here is cite the source that says that Dewey said it and to acknowledge that educational scholars and practical theologians regularly use the quotation as a foundational idea. See, e.g., “Learning by Thinking,” G. Di Stefano et. al., Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 14-093 and Harvard Business School Technology & Operations Mgt. Unit Working Paper No. 14-093, available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2414478#%23.
[3] Kelley & Kelley, Creative Confidence, 48, 49.
[4] Quoted in Kelley & Kelley, Creative Confidence, 41.
[5] Ambiguity is a particularly important organizational term. The seminal work on is Michael Cohen and James March, Leadership & Ambiguity (Harvard Business School Press, 2nd Ed. 1986 [1974]); on the implications of ambiguity for religious organizations, see Scott Cormode, “Multi-layered Leadership,Journal of Religious Leadership 1:2 (Fall 2002).
[6] Rodriguez publishes many of his ideas in his influential Metacool blog (http://metacool.com). See especially his 2009 series on 21 Principles of Innovation, including “14: It’s not the years, it’s the mileage,” “4: Prototype as if you are wrong,” and “12: Instead of managing, try cultivating.” Quote from Kelley & Kelley, Creative Confidence, 49.
[7] Kelley & Kelley, Creative Confidence, 44.
[8] Kelley & Kelley, Creative Confidence, 40, 41.
[9] Schmidt & Rosenberg, How Google Works, 234-240, quotes from 238-240.
[10] Kelley & Kelley, Creative Confidence, 123.

Dr. Scott Cormode is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and is the Hugh De Pree Associate Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Seminary. The Hugh De Pree faculty chair was established by the family of the late Hugh De Pree, an accomplished leader and former CEO of Herman Miller, Inc., and brother of Max De Pree.

Scott brings significant leadership and teaching experience to this position. Scott has served as convener for numerous leadership conferences, presented numerous papers, chaired various boards and led training events. He is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Scott Cormode

Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership, Senior Fellow

Senior Fellow De Pree Center Hugh De Pree Associate Professor of Leadership Development Fuller Theological Seminary Scott Cormode, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and is the Hugh De Pree Associate Pr...

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