Intellectual Agility

Simple Tips for Leaders…

What is Intellectual Agility?

Intellectual agility refers to the ability of individuals to shift thinking, seek out new sources of information and develop new solutions to current and future problems.  Intellectual agility is closely connected to the concept of the “ability to learn” which consists of individual’s ability to develop or refine their existing knowledge and skills in response to changing environments and as a result improve their performance.1

Leaders who lack intellectual agility get blocked in their thinking.  They become a victim of past success and rely on behaviors, decisions and practices that aren’t relevant to the changing environment.  In essence, they simply fail to learn from the things happening around them and subsequently fail to lead or perform under the new demands.2

Why Do We Need It?

Changes in the external environment require individuals and organizations to rapidly scan for and adjust to changes.  Individuals need to be aware of problems and identify new and unusual ways to solve them; approaching things from the status quo won’t be sustainable.

Leaders who can think about problems, test out solutions, quickly learn from the mistakes and adjust with new and better solutions demonstrate intellectual agility.  Organizations made up of individuals who can do this have a competitive advantage.

What Does Intellectual Agility Look Like?3

  • THINKING ABOUT & ANTICIPATING THE FUTURE: Individuals who take information, news, events, or ideas from seemingly unrelated areas and think about how these affect one another and how they might affect the future.
  • ACCEPTING UNCERTAINTY: Individuals are comfortable making decisions with less than “all” of the information or data.  Failure is an opportunity to learn and improve.
  • FLEXIBILITY: Individuals are able to course correct quickly when unforeseen events or errors take place, while still focusing on the goal.
  • TENACITY: Individuals who relish new challenges and persevere. They operate with reality as they pursue goals.
  • CURIOSITY: Individuals are constantly looking for new and different sources of information and to find ways to think about problems and opportunities.

How Can You Build Intellectual Agility and Help Others Do the Same?

  • Read articles and news on topics in other industries then reflect on or discuss with other the connection points.
  • Seek feedback from others on your decision making style and ability—do you incorporate different perspectives and strategies or go with your gut?
  • Volunteer or connect with people very different from you—listen, learn and experience the world from their view; then think about how those experiences apply to your work and your leadership.
  • Take risks, learn a new language or skill, fail in the experience and figure out how to do better next time.

For More Information about the Authors: Rhonda L. Frith-Lyons & Tracy Richardson

1   DeRue, D.S., Ashford, S.J, & Myers, C.G. (2012). Learning Agility: In search of conceptual clarity and theoretical grounding. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 5, 258 – 279.
2      Lombardo, M.M. & Eichinger, R.W. (2000). High potentials as high learns. Human Resource Management, 39(4), 321 – 329.
3    The Forum

2 thoughts on “Intellectual Agility

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