Learning strategy: how to upskill an agile organisation

Learning strategy
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The role of learning and development professionals is to ensure that individuals and organisations have the skills they need to grow and develop – but how do we know what those skills will be in future?

There's a familiar saying that goes: 'if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got'. It seems particularly pertinent when we’re thinking about developing future organisational capability.

We often see organisational L&D packages reflecting conventional leadership and management assumptions and practice.

These days they’re more likely to be innovative, digitally enhanced and emphasise self-guided learning, but we could be heading for a problem if the skills they develop are better suited to our past than our future.

The world is changing

A useful start point is to identify, if possible, what different skills will be required in future organisations.  

Much of what we’re doing today may still be relevant, so let’s focus on what needs to change.

Few doubt the world around us is changing, and it’s changing faster than we’re used to.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau summarised it in Davos last year when he said, ”the pace of life has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again”.

Learning and development must adapt to stay ahead of today’s pace of change and incorporate new skills required to be effective an increasingly complex, uncertain and fast-moving world.

What do these new challenges look like?  I can’t claim this is an exhaustive list, but today’s challenges include:

  • More teams are now geographically dispersed.
  • We commonly work in hybrid teams combining employed staff, contractors and outsource vendors.
  • There’s often difficulty with regards to finding a consensus on the way ahead because we can’t predict future events and, by association, outcomes.
  • We’re increasingly impacted by innovative technology with the ability to disrupt our existing business models and ways of doing things. Do we embrace it or try to resist its irresistible force?
  • We’re all swamped with data but don’t necessarily have any more insight to help us make decisions.

Do we need to change?

Exceptional leadership capability will differentiate successful companies from average performers.

Others will attempt to succeed by attempting to massage traditional, but fatally flawed, leader-follower models.  

These increasingly won’t work if they rely on expert leaders using top-down ‘know all – tell all’ methods of command.

Implemented effectively, being agile is about organisations being and behaving differently and it can be transformational.

Agile leadership may be a useful response to some of the pressures we face.

A lot of commentators write about agile organisations and agile transformations these days.

Essentially the term, when applied to organisations, means organisations ‘with agility’ or the capability to adapt rapidly and flexibly to their changing circumstances.  

Exemplar companies combine a strong backbone of capabilities with dynamic attributes enabling them to live ‘on the edge’ of the future and rapidly evolve.  

When thinking about what skills will be required in your organisation, ask yourself and colleagues two questions:

  1. Do we have a high or low level of certainty about the external environment we’re in?
  2. Do we have a high or low level of consensus on the way ahead?

If the answer to either of these questions indicates you are far from certainty and/or agreement, then the capability you need shares many characteristics with agile organisations designed to combine stability and dynamism – and it seems you’re not alone.  

Research published in McKinsey Quarterly indicated three-quarters of respondents say organisational agility is a top or top-three priority, and nearly 40% are currently conducting an organisational agility transformation.

Respondents in all sectors believed more of their employees should undertake agile ways of working, meaning innovative working practices incorporating physical and digital flexibility and focused on performance and outcomes.

What makes an agile organisation?

Implemented effectively, being agile is about organisations being and behaving differently and it can be transformational.

McKinsey’s important 2018 article on the topic Five Trademarks of Agile Organisations, identified some of the capabilities needed to build 21st century organisations:

  • They have a ‘north star’ (a guiding purpose and principles) embodied across the organisation.
  • They work through a network of small, empowered teams.
  • They use rapid decision and learning cycles.
  • They have dynamic people models based on a community, passionate about working cohesively with common intent.
  • They use next-generation enabling technology.

What skills will we need?

Let’s break this down into some progressive capabilities L&D needs to focus on.

  1. Creating common purpose
    Supporting leaders to develop and reinforce a clear sense of how an organisation intends to create value for all its stakeholders and finding effective ways to help people translate strategic direction into realistic and actionable outcomes.
  2. Network leadership
    As networks replace or at least enhance traditional structures, people at all levels will need capability to lead and coordinate, but not attempt to control, the collective output of networks of dispersed teams, working and flexibly, forming and re-forming constantly around the changing demands their mission.
  3. Collaboration and connection
    Generating value from collaboration and connection requires leaders at all levels to focus on enabling people-focused cultures emphasising empathy, relationship building and communication skills. The generation now entering the workplace may be better adapted to 21st century challenges, but others need help to develop proactive skills to cope more effectively with uncertainty and constant change.
  4. Planning for unplanned work
    More of our time now involves dealing with unplanned events. Leaders need to balance focus on long-term objectives with a bias for action to help teams move forwards and find a path to the future, rather than get bogged down.
  5. Decision making nearer the edge
    Leaders increasingly need to find ways to ensure decisions are made at the lowest appropriate level, even without enough information. This implies capability to know when to decide and how much (or how little) information is required to move forwards.

    To achieve this momentum, organisations need to develop highly-tuned situational awareness, put power in the hands of those best placed to make decisions and build trust in the process by which decisions are evaluated with the benefit of experience.

    It won’t happen unless people at all levels are encouraged to experiment and trusted to fail, provided they act with good intent.

How to upskill for the future

Step 1: persuade leaders the new situation demands new capabilities; highlight and get them to align on the mindset and behaviour needed.

Step 2: change won’t happen unless people see their leaders making changes. The second step is to ensure leaders role-model new mind-sets and behaviours, holding each other to account for making these changes and nurturing them in the teams they lead.

Step 3: implement L&D opportunities that support employees to develop new skills needed to succeed in the future organisation. This takes time. Remember, training is more effective when supported by self-directed and ‘on the job’ learning.

Ideally, develop practical scenario-based activities in conducted in a safe environment where people can collectively rehearse and receive feedback on new skills as they are being developed.

Step 4: ensure systems and processes are re-engineered to embed cultural change. This includes performance management and reward/recognition systems which incentivise people to demonstrate new behaviours.

There’s no point in developing capabilities for the future, like the freedom to take quick decisions, only to suffocate them with incoherent processes like incentivising caution and risk-avoiding behaviour.  

Interested in this topic? Read How to cultivate agility through learning.

About Mark Bouch

Mark Bouch managing director Leading Change


Mark Bouch is a speaker and proven leader in dynamic and complex environments. 

As managing director of Leading Change, Mark has an extensive track record developing change leaders and high performing teams capable of delivering ambitious business plans.

He has a 30+ year career combining senior leadership, strategy development, planning and operational roles.

Clients include major UK and international business and third sector organisations, including:

Francis Crick Institute, the largest initiative in biomedical research in Europe in over a decade

  • The Francis Crick Institute was the largest single investment into European R&D ever made
  • Implemented a strategy to action framework including coherent execution plans for the Crick’s five strategic priorities, focused on the first three years of transformation (DWB2018), and integrated it with existing transition plans

Pfizer, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies

  • Helped to address problems faced by development project teams - the programme was a great success leading to tangible business results
  • The team leader publicly credited the programme for catalysing a distinct improvement turning around a low probability of success & enabling them to file to regulatory authorities earlier than intended
  • Programme outcomes included a conservative 10% to the business impact of the consultancy intervention, and a true RoI was in the order of 50:1.

London 2012 Transport

  • Helped to facilitate London 2012’s transport readiness programme ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games - the most demanding the nation’s transport network had ever had to meet with over one million additional journeys on the busiest day
  • Helped the transport domain to manage incidents and coordinate activity effectively
  • Designed a command, control & communication (C3) exercise programme to rehearse and test leadership and management cells

Celgene, an American biotechnology company

  • Developed and facilitated a conference in Geneva to launch the European network and engage all affiliates in what the network planned to achieve
  • The conference incorporated experiential sessions to unite the team and strengthen intra-team relationships
  • Helped the leadership team to develop its mission using 5MAP tools

Compass Group UK & Ireland, the market leader in contract catering

  • Helped to weld the team together, define clear strategic direction aligned to the business and develop better relationships with sector customers
  • Designed and implemented a foundation programme of three modules over a 3 month period with follow-up and review meetings
  • The programme addressed the fundamentals of effective teamwork using Lencioni’s ‘5 Dysfunctions of a Team’ model
  • Used a 5QMA (mission analysis) process to help the team translate their overall purpose and intent into more focused short-term missions

Before establishing Leading Change, Mark held several senior roles, including:

  • Non-executive director of leadership at The Learning Architect - Advised and supported the founder throughout business launch and early development
  • Director at Sykes Fairbairn - Built and maintained relationships in major client accounts, developing consulting solutions and leading programme implementation
  • Consultant and director (UK) of McKinney Rogers International - Delivered 25% of consulting turnover through strategic alignment, leadership development, assessment centres and high performance team-working behaviour programmes 

Mark has a proven track record of:

  • Developing highly effective stakeholder relationships and establishing foundations for change
  • Developing strategy and plans, determining resources and priorities necessary for success
  • Building change leadership capability
  • Delivering operational leadership in challenging, fast-moving environments, for example leadership of operational Army EOD units providing counter-terrorist support
  • Developing and leading winning teams
  • Designing and executing successful change programmes at corporate and business unit level, for example, transforming the operating model of a NASDAQ/AIM listed bio-technology company

Mark is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and the Institute of Leadership & Management (Institute LM).

In his spare time, Mark is a keen skier and a member of The Ski Club of Great Britain. He is also trustee and chairman of Devizes Canoe Club.


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