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Vietnam – Learning Agility

My visit to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam last week was not an official part of the Learning {RE}imagined journey, but what I learned there I felt was both valuable and reinforced much of what I have discovered within the research and writing for the book that will be published in the autumn.


I was invited to design and deliver a learning experience for an international cohort of 40 high potential leaders from a UK FTSE 100 organisation active in the financial services sector. The module I designed was part of a 6 month “Agility Programme” developed by a faculty that included senior representatives from a leading UK university business school and several other leading executive and management training experts. Agility has become a vital area of skill development amongst large corporations facing challenges presented, for example, by sudden changes in regulatory framework or new and unanticipated competitors entering their market. In a nutshell, none of these corporations want to become the next Blackberry. An agile leadership team can successfully adapt to rapidly changing market conditions to maintain the success of their organisation.


Whilst in my past career I have built fast growth start-ups and sold them to large corporations I have not had the experience of a corporate career and so I was initially unsure of the value that I could add to this programme when first invited to join the faculty. My fellow faculty members and the cohort itself were all impressively qualified with MBA’s from leading business schools and degrees from leading universities. This was a very smart, high powered, group that I had found myself part of. The programme consisted of a number of residential periods plus online sessions and 1:1 coaching. Vietnam was chosen as a destination by the organisation to host the final residential week of the programme where the cohort would come to share and learn together.


The focus of my module was “Learning Agility”, what it is to be an agile learner, and in this context my presence made sense. Having not pursued a traditional educational path myself I’m effectively unschooled and have, since the age of 15, identified mentors and directed my own learning. During this time, where I have built and sold several disruptive organisations since my early 20’s, I have had no other option than to be an agile learner. A challenge for me then, was whether I could impart what I knew about learning to a group who, on the face of it, came from a radically different background, in a way that was relevant and useful to them.


The more I looked into the area of learning agility the more I discovered that it was an area flooded with jargon and consultants who could decipher it yet, in practice, it’s something that we’re born with naturally, but we’re almost taught out of. Traditional learning is measured by IQ and grades in tests based on certainty whereas agile learning would be determined by curiosity and quick thinking based on intuition. That’s not to say that you don’t want a balance of both but it’s these latter skills that are now being sought by some of the worlds leading corporations in candidates for senior leadership positions. These highly-prized individuals cope well with ambiguity and complexity, they don’t accept the status quo and they easily learn new functions.


I could be wrong but I don’t think that you can teach learning agility. I believe this kind of agility to be more like a set of “habits of mind” so in designing the module I considered what these habits might be and how I could encourage the cohort to think about them. I was interested in the ways we think about innovating, abstract problem solving or approach risk, how we reflect on our own performance, how we stay present and how we react to feedback. It occurred to me that many of these habits are present amongst children who are playful, curious and open-minded to new experiences that contribute to their learning. Thus a challenge for me was how to create a safe environment for the cohort to re-engage with their childlike state of curiosity in order to explore the habits and embed some of the theory that I was discussing during what was a 4 hour module in their, already, very intense week.


With the help of a colleague in London (Stuart Swann) I designed a set of activities using basic LEGO kits that also could be bought locally in Vietnam and provided to each member of the cohort. I chose LEGO after considering a variety of platforms from iPads to Raspberry Pi’s and even PlayDoh on the basis that the kits were inexpensive, available quickly in Vietnam and had a “low skills threshold” to their immediate usage. By this, I mean that the cohort could immediately work on my exercises without prior knowledge of the medium or any initial “training” in its use. It was also useful because I was hosting the module on the 50th floor of theBitexco Financial Tower in Ho Chi Minh City where I was unsure of technical details like Internet access or power sockets etc. In essence, I could host this learning experience almost anywhere which, given the theme of the Learning {RE}imagined project, interests me a lot.


From the first of opening of their LEGO boxes it was clear that the cohort, who had no prior warning of the impending games, enjoyed the opportunity to return to the kind of experiential learning that they’d had as children. This established a playful environment where we could explore some quite weighty subjects and test them out as a team. It also meant that the formality of the lecture format was changed where the cohort, unprompted, felt comfortable enough to rearrange the environment to be more lounge like so they could continue to build during the talking parts of the module.


Altogether, I really enjoyed the session. The feedback I received from the cohort and faculty colleagues was highly positive. Whilst it was my job to teach I also learned a great deal that made me reflect on how todays leading corporations and employers are now actively seeking ways to energise their leadership to encourage out of the box thinking and agile problem solving in complex situations. It seems to me that what we need to do now is make sure that these skills are valued across the educational spectrum and that, in our quest to measure and standardise, we don’t lose the very thing that makes us valuable.


Graham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.

Sir Ken Robinson & Graham Brown-Martin

Sir Ken Robinson : The Art of Teaching

That’s why I always say that teaching is an art form. It’s not a delivery system. I don’t know when we started confusing teaching with FedEx. Teaching is an arts practice. It’s about connoisseurship and judgment and intuition. We all remember the great teachers in our lives. The ones who kind of woke us up and that we’re still thinking about because they said something to us or they gave us an angle on something that we’ve never forgotten.


Sir Ken Robinson


One of the many people I met and interviewed during the research tour for #LearningREimagined was my friend and mentor Sir Ken Robinson. The full interview will be published later this year as part of the Learning {RE}imagined book and accompanying app but I thought you would enjoy this 5 minute excerpt.



Let me know what you think in the comments section below and please feel welcome to share with your friends and colleagues.