Learning agility helps startups overcome the uncertainties of establishing a new business in service of long-term goals.

For startups that are just getting off the ground, it can be a challenge to run a lean balance sheet while accounting for the volatility of the modern economy. This unpredictability means that employees need to be willing to adapt in order for a business to thrive. Learning agility — that is, an individual’s ability to apply and make meaning out of experience — is the make-or-break skill that will determine how adept employees are at growing into new responsibilities and unexpected roles.

With that said, the possibilities of learning agility extend beyond just helping workers adapt to changing job expectations. In reality, it’s about future-proofing your organization. With so much pressure to produce immediate solutions, startups rarely have the luxury of building long-term talent strategies. Seeking out and hiring candidates who are agile learners can, in the long run, ensure that your teams will be well-equipped to handle tomorrow’s business challenges today.

Curious how learning agility can contribute to your startup’s long-term goals? Let us count the ways — five of them, in fact:

1. Developing Managers Before They Even Exist

When most upstart businesses hire their first employees, the primary goal is to find individuals with the best technical skills. Founders are, first and foremost, concerned with their bottom line; thus, they tend to focus on onboarding talented employees who can perform the day-to-day tasks needed to turn a profit. By focusing solely on proficiency, however, startup founders and hiring managers risk creating a pool of senior employees without the managerial skill set or adaptability they’ll need to mentor incoming hires down the line.

This challenge is a classic organizational pitfall. In their seminal book The Lessons of Experience, Morgan McCall, Michael Lombardo, and Ann Morrison write that after being promoted, many managers and executives “tended to depend largely on the same skills which got them promoted in the first place rather than learning new ones” that would help them excel in their new positions.

If startup founders can bring on new employees who are capable of carrying out their immediate job responsibilities as well as open to learning new tasks, they stand a better chance of cultivating a dynamic, collaborative company workflow.

2. Bridging the Gap Between Generalists and Specialists

Startups can’t afford to rely purely on generalists or specialists. Instead, they need individuals with the perspective to understand how they fit within an organization, as well as the motivation to take action and adapt to changing conditions or processes. Whereas generalists often sacrifice depth for breadth, specialists tend to lack the ability to effectively respond to new challenges.

A talent base that is adaptable — and coachable — will be better positioned to close gaps as they arise and succeed in new and varied roles. This isn’t a reflection of technical ability, but rather of the capacity to distill lessons from experience. While not all team members will share this same aptitude, it’s vital to foster the talents of a few unicorns who can wear multiple hats.

3. Tolerance for Ambiguity

For young companies that are deeply affected by shifting demand and changes in the marketplace, the ability to thrive under ambiguous circumstances is the hallmark of a successful employee.

Flexibility — one of the key elements of learning agility — provides a natural safeguard against the rapid fluctuations of the business landscape. Individuals who are able to contextualize new situations in terms of past experiences are better able to position themselves for success within an ambiguous climate.

4. Real-Time Process Iteration

A recent Harvard Business Review study of Ali Baba — a tech giant that scaled up from much smaller beginnings — classifies the company as “the pioneers of the self-tuning enterprise.” What this means: the firm’s overarching business strategy is centered on constant process iteration.

This painstaking strategy, in which processes are gradually improved upon through trial and error, is evident across the organization’s performance management processes. As the study explains, this helps “internal HR systems keep up as operational teams frequently re-align themselves to market needs.” Of course, in order to maintain this iterative approach, highly agile employees are a must.

5. Failing Fast but Not Repeating Mistakes

A series of relatively minor failures leading up to a major success is a common denominator in the startup sector. Many young companies navigate this rocky terrain by embracing the maxim “fail fast.”

But the only way that failing fast can be productive — especially in startups where resources are limited — is if team members are able to learn from their mistakes. By extracting valuable, actionable lessons from failures (and of course, doing everything possible to avoid them in the future), learning agility can play a significant role in a business’s long-term success.

Author Reuben Weiss

As People Operations Manager, Reuben works to unify L&T's business and talent strategies. He believes that an organization is only as good as its people, and he strives to create a culture that supports L&T’s top asset. Prior to working at L&T, Reuben consulted for various organizations ranging from Fortune 20 corporations to nonprofits. He has also facilitated trainings on executive coaching, effective communication, mindful awareness practices, and working with personality assessments. He holds an M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University, and a B.A. from UCLA. In his free time, he enjoys exploring bodegas, sauntering, drinking seltzer, and doing yoga.

More posts by Reuben Weiss