ASK THE OD DOCTORS: What Impedes Learning Agility and How Can It Be Developed?

Reflections and Thoughts by Dr. Lily Cheng
Founder and Chief OD Catalyst

VUCA is the acronym for the world that you and I live in. It was a military term that emerged in the wake of the Cold War in the 1990s, which was used by the US Army War College to refer to a world that had become more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.

The chaos of the modern battlefield is equally felt in business environments. In the corporate realm, things change unpredictably and important information is often missing or unreliable. In addition, with the complex interaction between diverse agents, it is difficult to trace a clear connection between cause and effect. Multiple meanings also co-exist in our surroundings, engulfing us in a fog of ambiguity. Survival in VUCA environments demands our learning agility — how rapidly we analyse and understand new problems and situations that arise, will determine our ability to successfully navigate the disruptive world in which we exist. But what impedes our learning agility and how can both leaders and their constituents ensure that it is better developed?


Learning agility involves our ability to apply new strategies, concepts, behaviour and knowledge to novel problems. That means constantly being on our toes to innovate and respond, instead of sticking to an old “success recipe” that may be inappropriate for the new situation. The problem is that many operate from a state of mindlessness. They think they have become so good and efficient at what they do and thus no longer take time to reflect on their application of learned knowledge and skills, but are reflexive in their responses to any situation.

In order to exit the state of mindlessness, it is necessary to retrace the steps that led one there.

We were once incompetent in the skills that we treat as second nature to us. In fact, we not only lacked competence in these skills, but also did not know that we were lacking in them. According to the Conscious Competence Ladder, we were at a stage of Unconscious Incompetence. As we realised the limits of our knowledge or skills, we progressed to Conscious Incompetence of them. Consequently, we were able to acquire the knowledge or skills that we recognised as lacking, further advancing to a stage of Conscious Competence. By intentionally and diligently exercising and improving upon the new knowledge or skills acquired at this stage until we had sufficient practice, we were then able to finally make our passage into a stage of Unconscious Competence. This is where our knowledge and skills are used automatically without conscious efforts.

Instead of remaining at the final stage of Unconscious Competence, some dangerously drift off even further into a state of mindlessness. In this state, knee-jerk reflexes are given to new situations and problems rather than well-thought responses that need to be specifically applied in these unique contexts. Even though they have previously progressed through levels of competence, those in the state of mindlessness are now rendered incompetent in a VUCA world.


While some are caught in mindlessly giving their quickest reflex to new demands, others might be frozen in a zone of panic, and fall short of being able to expeditiously analyse the situation and develop the best strategy. Just as we retraced the steps that led people to a state of mindlessness, it is now also crucial that we identify how one ends up in the the panic zone.

When we learn, we begin at an inner circle of what we are comfortable with. This is our comfort zone, where we know well what we are capable of and can consistently achieve expected outcomes and results. However, once in new environments, we have to adapt and learn to perform in new ways. We are thus challenged to push beyond our comfort into a learning zone.

Beyond this zone lies the courage zone — aptly named because it takes a fair amount of courage to venture that far and be twice removed from our comfort zone. In the courage zone, we continue to learn, but like an exponential function, the learning curve is steeper. We are challenged to accomplish greater and more difficult things that require a fair amount of courage to achieve.

Once we have mustered the courage to experiment with all the new knowledge, we advance into the performance zone. This is where we will really start to perform differently than before, perhaps even with surprising results.

When we take any short cuts and do not go progress through all three zones sequentially, we will inevitably fall into the panic zone. Bypassing any of the zones causes us to do an assortment of new things without ample preparation or prior learning. We crack under the pressure of new challenges instead of rising to face them, or even actively seeking out such challenging experiences.


Equipped with an awareness of the factors that lead one into a state of mindlessness and the panic zone, which ultimately impede learning agility, we are now ready to look at the steps we must take to be agile learners. The acronym LEARN helps to capture the key elements in the cultivation of learning agility, arming both leaders and their constituents with a powerful weapon to combat the challenges of a VUCA world.


to adopt the practices employed by effective learners. Even as leaders, we should not neglect to find a coach who will help us identify these best practices and come up with a plan to incorporate them.


yourself and your constituents to challenging experiences that stretch you out of your comfort zone.


in your personal development and career plans with a wide range of learning opportunities that draw from different learning styles.


the efficacy of decisions made. With peers or in teams, gather a range of views on how different people would approach the same situation and collectively explore alternative strategies.

Never Give Up!

 Every challenge we face in our VUCA world presents both leaders and their constituents alike with an opportunity to develop new behaviours and strategies, which is all a part of the exercise of learning agility.

In closing, our learning agility is what will help us to survive and thrive in a VUCA world. After we climb the ladder of conscious competence and are able to unconsciously put into practice the knowledge and skills we have acquired, we cannot afford to fall off into a state of mindlessness. In addition, we must never take short cuts on our learning journey so as to avoid falling into a panic zone where we are ill-equipped to handle new challenges. As we LEARN to combat the challenges of a VUCA world, we will experience breakthrough on both corporate and personal levels.

I hope that I’ve benefitted you somehow by sharing some lessons learnt from my journey as a business leader and entrepreneur. I’m looking forward to hear your stories as well, and would be glad if you could write back to me at or lilycheng@


  • Cheng, L. and P. Cheng. (2012). Real Leaders: Championing Culture, Sustaining Performance Excellence. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish.
  • Leadership challenges in the V.U.C.A N.p., 2017. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.
  • The Conscious Competence Ladder. www. N.p., 2017. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

Have a burning question for our OD Doctors, Dr. Lily Cheng and Dr. Peter Cheng? Do email us at doctors@pace-od. com and we’ll reply you within 5 working days. The featured question in our Ask The OD Doctors section will receive a mystery gift from us!