Nutshell: Are you a ‘versatile learning animal’? What Google can teach us about LQ

Written by
Future Talent Learning

02 Dec 2019

02 Dec 2019 • by Future Talent Learning

Adding curiosity quotient and learning quotient (LQ) to the multiple intelligences we need to thrive at work will give us the edge when tackling uncertainty.

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt apparently asks himself one question before making any hiring decision: if he were stuck at an airport with the prospective employee, would they be able to hold an interesting conversation?

We might expect that, at a tech behemoth such as Google, senior executives might not take such a direct interest in hiring. Wrong. In their book How Google Works, Schmidt and his one-time colleague Jonathan Rosenberg tell us that, at Google, hiring and retaining the right talent is an absolute top priority. And the reason for this is that the company is powered by the people Schmidt and Rosenberg call “smart creatives”.

These smart creatives are, unsurprisingly, the very model of employees designed for the age of uncertainty: clever, curious, creative and forward thinking; not afraid to try new things and fail; able to embrace rather than avoid flexibility, change and adaptation. And as for how to attract these multifaceted self-iterators, here’s the rub:

“Hire them not for the knowledge they possess, but for the things they dont yet know.”

Google’s preference for “versatile learning animals” speaks to an increasingly important way to future-proof our careers and strengthen our organisations: being curious and constantly learning new things. Just as Agile management techniques are no longer the sole preserve of Silicon Valley, so we could all benefit from these key characteristics of the smart creatives. In an era of quotient ‘creep’ (spirituality quotient (SQ), anyone?), the concepts of CQ (curiosity quotient) and LQ (learning or learnability quotient) are gaining traction.

Bridging the gap

This move towards multiple intelligences undoubtedly reflects the fact that we’re operating in a complex and fast-moving world. IQ and EQ still provide the critical underpinning of rational intelligence and emotional awareness, but, increasingly, there’s a feeling that more might be needed to meet the challenges of the future. Developing a curiosity that drives our learning is an important step in bridging that gap.

The idea of CQ was first developed by author and journalist Thomas Friedman, who suggested that, when coupled with passion, curiosity can be a greater asset than even the highest IQ. Leaders with a high CQ are relentlessly inquisitive and are proactive about developing new habits. They actively invest and reinvest in knowing more, using a broad range of sources to hone their “horizon-scanning”, always on the look-out for new ideas and opportunities to try out new approaches at work rather than relying on the skills and expertise they already have.

Psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explores the idea in more detail in a Harvard Business Review blog where, alongside IQ and EQ, he considers CQ to be one of the “three key psychological qualities that enhance our ability to manage complexity”. People who are inquisitive, open to new ideas and have more nuanced thinking styles are more tolerant of ambiguity and open to acquiring the knowledge that can help solve complex problems. That might mean volunteering for a challenging assignment in an area outside our comfort zone; it could involve challenging the status quo in the face of resistance; we might challenge our perspectives and assumptions by actively seeking out the views of others.

The good news is that, like EQ, CQ can be developed and nurtured. Which brings us to that learning piece. To make the most of our curiosity, we also need to work on our LQ. LQ refers to our desire and ability to quickly grow and adapt our skills sets throughout our working lives. Like those smart creatives, it’s not about what we already know, but about how quickly we can learn – and how readily we seek out opportunities for development. Like so much else, it’s about being open to the new, able to embrace change and willing to take charge of our own development – as well as that of others.

The idea of LQ also gives proper meaning to the much-misused phrase ‘lifelong learning’. With all of us likely to live and work for longer, and the pace of technological change showing no signs of abating, the need to adapt to change and acquire new skills means that individuals and organisations alike will have to do more than pay lip service to continuous skills development.

Chamorro-Premuzic also has views on learnability. Together with co-author Mara Swan, he contrasts the earliest principles of scientific management, designed for productivity through standardisation, with a contemporary work landscape that demands of workers exactly the opposite: “the capacity to keep learning and developing new skills and expertise, even if they are not obviously linked to one’s current job.” For employees today, employability “no longer depends on what they already know, but on what they are likely to learn”.

How to develop learning agility

It’s a view shared by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). Working with a team from Columbia University, their white paper, Learning About Learning Agility, concludes that “Ultimately, our ability to continuously learn and adapt will determine the extent to which we thrive in today’s turbulent times”.

The research uses the phrase ‘learning agility’, defined as “a mindset and corresponding collection of practices that allow leaders to continually develop, grow, and utilize new strategies that will equip them for the increasingly complex problems they face in their organizations”. It identifies five key attributes of those with a high degree of learning agility:

  1. Innovative: unafraid to challenge the status quo.
  2. Calm: stoic in the face of difficulty.
  3. Reflective: take time to reflect regularly on their experiences.
  4. Open to challenge: and purposefully putting themselves in challenging situations.
  5. Open-minded: resisting the temptation to become defensive in the face of adversity.

The CCL also recommends some tips we can all use to boost our learning agility:

#1 Innovate
Rather than choose the first solution that comes to mind, we should challenge ourselves to come up with new solutions – the less traditional, the better. What’s holding us back? How would we behave if those constraints weren’t there?

#2 Perform
Under pressure, we often feel the urge to get things done quickly. But this can close us off both to the wisdom of others and from our own experience. Inspiration often comes from the unconscious; taking the time to stop, relax and allow our minds to make those unconscious connections can spark new ideas and strengthen performance.

#3 Reflect
Learning occurs when we take the time to reflect, to shift our thinking beyond merely what happened to ask why things happened the way they did.

#4 Take Risks
Taking on new challenges allows us to develop new skills and perspectives that may become an important part of our repertoire in the future.

#5 [Don’t] Defend
When we enter self-preservation mode and become defensive, we close ourselves off to what could be. Stay open to feedback.

The obverse of this is to think about our learning blockers, the things that get in the way of taking a learning approach or looking for learning opportunities. Maybe our default is to stick to what we know; maybe we’re reluctant to move outside our comfort zone, or perhaps thinking about our own development goes out of the window when we’re busy. Being conscious and self-aware about what’s getting in the way is the first step to removing those barriers and to staying open to learning new things.

Mindset matters

Whether we’re likely to embrace curiosity and learnability also depends on our mindset, our predisposition to react to and interpret in a certain way the situations in which we find ourselves. Psychologist Carol Dweck argues that the mindset we adopt about how fixed our abilities and intelligence are can determine the course of much of our lives: how we learn, how we cope with setbacks, how we relate to others. If she’s right, adopting a mindset that supports learning can only be a major plus.

She differentiates between two main learning mindsets:

In a fixed mindset, we believe that our basic qualities, such as intelligence or talent, are simply fixed, unchangeable traits. If we have a fixed mindset, we believe that we’re either smart or dumb, and that talent alone creates success. We often feel defensive and the need to prove ourselves. Failure – however small – is a setback, so we tend to avoid challenges. Effort is seen as pointless. Unsurprisingly, a fixed mindset can be a real obstacle to curiosity and learning.

In a growth mindset, we believe that these abilities can be developed: brains and talent are just a starting point. If we have a growth mindset, we believe that we can get smarter with effort, persistence and the right learning strategies. A willingness to see mistakes as a learning opportunity and to seek stretching challenges creates “a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment”.

Imagine, for example, that we lost out on that promotion. With a fixed mindset, we’re likely simply to deem that we’re a failure, destined never to progress. With a growth mindset, we will still be disappointed, but will focus on how we can improve and do better next time.

For Dweck, choosing the right mindset dictates how we live our lives. And it is a choice. She argues that we can all develop a growth mindset and that, often, just acknowledging how the two mindsets work and thinking about our preferences can help us to make that choice.

Nor is adopting a growth mindset a one-time thing. We need to keep setting goals, to keep on learning. Dweck suggests that, every day, we should ask ourselves “What are the opportunities for learning and growth today – for myself and for the people around me?”. Then we should think about the opportunities and make a plan to bring them to life.

Can we measure learnability?

Finally, might we be able to measure how good we actually are at learning? Might identifying individual learning patterns and preferences create the potential for us to develop our learnability through better self-awareness and a more intentional targeting of learning opportunities?

The Columbia/CCL researchers also developed an assessment tool to measure their five learning agility attributes. Their Learning Agility Assessment Inventory (LAAI) explores how learning-agile individuals learn and behave at work. By comparing responses from individuals who also took standard psychological tests around the ‘big five’ personality traits, they found that individuals who scored highly on the five learning attributes shared some interesting traits: high learning-agile individuals tended to be more social, creative, focused and resilient. They were less interested in accommodating others and not afraid to challenge norms. It also seems that high learning-agile behaviours also matter to others: leaders valued those who were less defensive and more open to feedback; peers and direct reports valued people who were more reflective and willing to change.

The CCL research has concluded that learning agility is a mindset and collection of practices that allow leaders to continually develop, grow and use new strategies that will equip them for the increasingly complex problems they face in their organisations.

We know that identifying learning and personality types is not without its perils. But thinking about our own CQ and LQ gives us insight into where our current strengths might lie and where more development might be needed. It might also give us pause for thought when we need to create cultures where “versatile learning animals” can thrive.  

Employers are increasingly under pressure to create those cultures, providing meaningful ways for their people to learn different skills and adapt to new processes and technologies. Leaders will need to be more actively engaged in this than ever before. And while employers need to provide these cultures to be attractive to employees, as individuals we also need to look to our own curiosity and learnability to remain attractive to employers.

Perhaps we all need to bear in mind some of Henry Ford’s many words of wisdom: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” The right attributes and mindset can show us the way.


Test your understanding

  • Outline the five learning agility attributes identified by CCL.
  • Describe how someone with a fixed or growth mindset might react differently to challenges and obstacles.

What does it mean for me?

  • Consider any learning blockers that might get in the way of your LQ. What might you do to mitigate them? How might developing more of a growth mindset help?


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