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Boosting organizational agility: 5 proven steps to turbocharge learning and build resilience

Published 1 August 2023 in Management • 9 min read

In a world characterized by disruption and complexity, the ability of organizations to swiftly detect and respond to change has become crucial for sustained success. One decisive element stands out as the cornerstone of organizational resilience: adaptability through learning 

As I reflect on my experiences in supporting various organizations on their transformation journeys, I firmly believe that adaptability is rooted in a culture of continuous learning.  

Learning serves as the foundation for adaptability, empowering organizations to cultivate a curious mindset that seeks new knowledge, experiments, explores alternative approaches, and embraces change in a VUCA world. By actively fostering a culture of continuous learning, organizations can equip their workforce with the environment and tools necessary to help them thrive through the unknown, identify urgent problems, take calculated risks, experiment, and embrace failure to find creative and innovative solutions to emerging challenges, seize opportunities, and contribute to building a competitive edge. Curiosity and learning become the fuel that propels adaptability, positions organizations at the forefront of transformation, and drives long-term value creation and sustainable growth. 

Based on my observations working with executives across industries, I believe that organizations must actively embed a more fluid, nimble, and responsive approach that is built on this culture of continuous learning. In this article, I propose five steps to help your organization transform into a dynamic learning entity.  

Step 1: Forge a powerful connection between learning and organizational purpose 

According to research by McKinsey, only 40% of companies say they align their learning strategy with business goals, meaning that, for two out of three businesses, learning has no clear connection to business goals. Continuous learning on the job ensures individuals stay up to date with industry trends and advancements, adapt to changing work environments, and remain competitive in their careers. To build a learning organization, start by aligning learning initiatives with your strategic goals. This creates a purposeful approach to organizational learning.  

Develop a shared vision so that employees understand and embrace the organization’s strategic direction. This clarity guides individuals and teams towards desired outcomes, boosting their motivation and engagement in the learning process. Additionally, allocate resources to critical processes that align with strategic priorities. By investing in areas such as sustainability, efficiency, digitalization, new product development, safety, and quality, organizations prioritize learning that directly supports long-term objectives. This targeted investment helps develop capabilities and competencies that align with the organization’s vision.  

Company example: IKEA and circular economy training as a strategic goal 

As part of its 2030 ambitions to help tackle climate change, unsustainable consumption, and inequality, IKEA has refocused its HR function and resources to become a driving strategic force in its circularity agenda

As part of its 2030 ambitions to help tackle climate change, unsustainable consumption, and inequality, IKEA has refocused its HR function and resources to become a driving strategic force in its circularity agenda. For example, IKEA has provided circular design and development training for its product designers to improve their understanding of circular design principles, recyclable materials, and how to extend product life.  

Questions for executives:  

  • Do we have a clear understanding of the purpose and direction of our strategy? 
  • Are we aligning our learning and development initiatives with our strategy?  
  • What steps is our organization taking to strategically prioritize and invest in individual and collective learning and development to achieve our organizational goals?   

Step 2: Harness the power of learning routines: Integrating learning into daily work 

Learning is everyone’s job. Gone are the days when work was solely seen as a means to learn a job. Nowadays, learning itself is the job. Learning should no longer be scheduled, but seen as an integral part of meetings, projects, and daily tasks. It must become fundamental to our roles and resilience. By integrating learning into our conversations and culture, even small changes can make a big difference in our development.  

When this concept of “learning in flow” is embraced, it becomes ingrained in the rhythms, routines, and rituals of the way people work. It becomes a collective responsibility and is evident in the language used. To make learning in flow a reality, consistent actions from individuals and teams are crucial. Google, for example, encourages employees to spend 20% of their work time on projects of personal interest, which promotes learning, innovation, and creativity. This has resulted in the development of successful products like Gmail and Google Maps. 

Company example: – sharing stories of failure began organizing relaxed evening get-togethers for staff to share their stories of project failures, fueled with pizza and drinks. This informal, honest way of learning from mistakes proved a success, including the involvement of managers, and soon scaled up to reinforce the concept of “failing fast” to build a learning organization. 

This informal, honest way of learning from mistakes proved a success, including the involvement of managers, and soon scaled up to reinforce the concept of “failing fast” to build a learning organization

Questions for executives:  

  • How can we integrate experimentation, feedback, and learning into the daily workflows and routines of our workforce and teams? 
  • How do our processes facilitate or hinder knowledge sharing, experimentation, collaboration, and learning from failure across departments and teams? 
  • Are there mechanisms in place to capture and document lessons learned from projects and experiences? 

Step 3: Fuel curiosity for success: Aligning incentives to drive innovation 

In building a learning organization, it is crucial to align incentives and recognition with learning goals, rather than solely focusing on performance goals. By doing so, organizations can foster a culture of continuous learning and encourage employees to prioritize curiosity and personal development. One effective approach is to incorporate metrics and rewards that communicate what success looks like.  

This is a relatively new area, but more and more organizations are realizing the importance of curiosity and the importance of finding ways to measure and incentivize it. There are diverse ways to do this, and it is worth experimenting to find the best solution. Some, including Statkraft, have even introduced KPIs to gauge areas such as collaboration. 

Company example: Novartis and incentives 

“We are investing in removing all barriers to learning and encouraging each associate to devote 5% of their time to learning, education, and skills development regardless of role, level, or location”
- Novartis, The global pharmaceutical company

The global pharmaceutical company has implemented a system that emphasizes curiosity-based goals to drive learning and innovation. By recognizing and rewarding employees who demonstrate curiosity, exploration, and a commitment to learning, Novartis encourages a mindset of continuous improvement and knowledge acquisition: “We are investing in removing all barriers to learning and encouraging each associate to devote 5% of their time to learning, education and skills development regardless of role, level, or location.” 

Questions for executives:  

  • Are the incentives and recognition systems in our organization aligned with learning goals, or are they primarily focused on performance goals? 
  • How can we incorporate metrics and rewards that communicate the importance of learning and personal development to encourage a curiosity-driven organization? 
  • Are we investing in removing barriers to learning and creating an environment where employees are encouraged to dedicate a portion of their time to learning? 

Step 4: Unite teams and foster collaborative momentum 

True learning organizations do not just believe that transformation and innovation are everyone’s individual responsibilities, they also believe they represent a team sport that encourages everyone to be part of the solution. Empowering people to learn together (from and with team members across silos) lowers the barriers to change and harnesses collective intelligence for problem solving.  

In the quest to establish a dynamic learning organization and enhance agility, organizations can embrace agile working methodologies such as “squads”. Squads involve a combination of professionals from different areas gathered together to develop solutions, innovations and efficiently deliver business results. These cross-functional teams serve as fertile ground for fostering collaborative learning, enabling employees to pool their expertise and gain valuable insights from one another. 

Company example: Spotify squads  

Spotify’s success in implementing the squad-based organizational structure, for example, stands as a testament to the transformative potential of this approach, promoting continuous learning and knowledge exchange. By cultivating a culture of collaboration and providing opportunities for shared learning, organizations can leverage collective intelligence, create an ecosystem that thrives on innovation, and nurture problem-solving capabilities.  

Spotify's success in implementing the squad-based organizational structure, for example, stands as a testament to the transformative potential of this approach, promoting continuous learning and knowledge exchange

Questions for executives: 

  • In what ways does our organizational structure influence our capacity to cultivate a learning culture? 
  • How can we experiment with and evaluate various organizational structures to effectively enhance individual and collective learning, aligning with our purpose and goals? 
  • How might we actively engage employees and harness collective intelligence to foster collaboration across different departments and silos within the organization? 

Step 5: Nurture a haven for talent: Creating a psychologically safe space to thrive 

Talent is at the heart of any learning organization. Attracting and retaining the right talent is crucial for innovation – and this means creating a culture that enables employees to grow and reach their potential while feeling like they can be their authentic selves. 

First, companies must hire more employees who are naturally curious and open to learning, and then give them the necessary resources and environments to develop their capabilities, foster the right mindsets, learn new skills, and contribute to organizational goals.  

A crucial factor in building a learning organization, therefore, is to provide a psychologically safe space for diverse employees. This safe environment allows individuals to take risks, experiment, and learn without the fear of judgment or negative repercussions. Remember how senior staff from were willing to share their own stories of failure? This is one way to show all team members that it is OK to make mistakes, as long as we can learn from them. 

Company example: Google and Project Aristotle 

We learned that there are five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google

Psychological safety is crucial in forming high-performance teams, as revealed by Google’s extensive study as part of its Project Aristotle initiative. Google developed its ‘Teams’ tool to assess team dynamics, provide feedback, and offer resources for improvement. Teams that adopted new group norms, such as sharing risks in meetings, saw improvements in psychological safety and clarity.  

Questions for executives:  

  • How can we ensure that our hiring process identifies candidates who are curious, open to learning, and committed to personal development? 
  • What resources and support can we provide to employees to facilitate their growth, develop the right mindsets, and acquire new skills? 
  • How can we create a psychologically safe space where individuals feel comfortable taking risks, experimenting, and learning without the fear of judgment or negative consequences? 

By proactively integrating these five proven steps and emphasizing a human-centric approach to learning, organizations can orchestrate a symphony of organizational agility. This proactive integration, coupled with a culture of continuous growth, empowers employees to adapt, innovate, and excel in the face of change. By placing learning at the heart of their operations, organizations cultivate a collective intelligence that drives sustained success in today’s dynamic business landscape. Embracing these steps, organizations can create a harmonious and resilient environment that enables them to navigate challenges, seize opportunities, and thrive in an ever-evolving marketplace. 


Louise Muhdi

Louise Muhdi

Affiliate Professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD

Louise Muhdi is Affiliate Professor of Innovation and Strategy. She helps organizations adapt to uncertain and fast-changing business environments, drive innovation and growth, and sustain value creation for the long term. She has an MSc in biology and a PhD in technology and innovation management from ETH Zürich, Switzerland. Prior to joining IMD in 2019, Muhdi was Head of Innovation Strategy and Portfolio for Global Science and Technology at Givaudan International where she developed the global innovation strategy and implemented multiple strategic initiatives to drive short, mid, and long-term growth. She also spent several years in the pharmaceutical industry.


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