Education competencies: Learning on the fly

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success. View all competencies .


Learns quickly when facing new problems; analyzes both successes and failures for clues to improvement; experiments and will try anything to find solutions; enjoys the challenge of unfamiliar tasks.

Proficiency level

Level 1: Basic Level 2: Intermediate Level 3: Advanced Level 4: Expert
Learns quickly in the context of an activity when given direction and guidance Learns quickly and independently in the context of an activity; seeks opportunities to extend and deepen learning Learns quickly, independently, and confidently in the context of an activity; extends and deepens that learning; and effectively integrates new information and skills to enhance performance Is an avid, adept, disciplined, and versatile learner in the context of an activity; quickly and effectively integrates new information and skills to enhance personal performance or the performance of the organization
Learns from successes and failures, regards all experience as an opportunity to learn and improve Learns from both successes and failures, regards all experiences as opportunities to learn and improve, is intentional and disciplined about reflecting on and internalizing learning Adeptly learns in the context of a challenge; regards challenge as an opportunity for new learning; seeks out challenges in order to learn Relishes challenges as opportunities to learn; is exceptionally resilient in the face of challenge, demonstrating great determination and advanced ability for experiential learning; is exceptionally skilled at codifying experiential learning for personal or organizational application
Appreciates the challenge of unfamiliar tasks as an opportunity for learning and growth Works well in adapting to the challenge of new or unfamiliar tasks and responsibilities, appreciates the opportunity for learning and growth Rises to the challenge of unfamiliar tasks and responsibilities; is willing to experiment, risk, and seek resources to learn, grow, and find solutions Can be consistently counted on to successfully handle unfamiliar, tense, or crisis situations. Readily learns and transfers conceptual knowledge to action in those situations
Understands the essence and underlying structure of things with little explanation Quickly understands the underlying structure of things and looks deeper into the complexity of that structure Quickly understands the essence and the underlying structure of things; can intuitively apply this new information to generate solutions to problems Uses his or her ability to quickly grasp underlying structures to adeptly learn and problem-solve, often implementing creative solutions

Overdoing learning on the fly

  • May leave others behind; may frustrate others with his or her need for change
  • May tend to change things too often; people may interpret openness as indecisiveness or being wishy-washy
  • May seek out change for change’s sake, regardless of the situation
  • May not be good at routine administration or unchallenging tasks or jobs

Essential questions

To improve your proficiency, ask yourself the following questions on a regular basis:

  • What opportunity can I take today to try something new?
  • What unconventional solutions have I tried lately to resolve a problem?
  • What ways can I improve a process or procedure that has already worked successfully?
  • What ways can I improve a process or procedure that has been a failure?
  • What are some quick, uncomplicated experiments I can try to get a problem off dead-center?
  • What questions do I need to ask to clarify, define, or analyze a problem I face?

To avoid overdoing learning on the fly, ask yourself:

  • Am I overly obsessed with changing things just for the sake of change?
  • Am I abandoning a course of action too quickly and not giving it a chance to work?
  • Am I avoiding the mundane or pushing it all on someone else?

Interview questions

  • Describe a time when you participated in an activity to learn a new skill or gain knowledge. What did you learn and how did you apply it on the job? What were the results?
  • Often, we learn from successfully facing challenges or experiencing mistakes or failures. Please share a time when this was the case for you. What did you learn from the experience? How did you apply what you learned, and what was the result?
  • Tell me about a time when you took on the challenge of a new or unfamiliar task or responsibility. How did you learn about the opportunity? Who made the choice about whether you took it on or not? What did you learn and how did you apply it back on the job?
  • Some tasks or responsibilities that we take on are more unfamiliar, pressure-filled, or risky than others. Think back to the most challenging task or responsibility you’ve recently taken on. Why did you take it on? What made it so challenging? What did you do to handle it? What were your results?
  • Think back to a time when you were better able than others to quickly grasp the underlying essence or structure of complex things and figure out how to apply that information. Describe the situation and how your understanding was different from others. How did you apply the information?

Learning on the job

Learning on your own: These self-development remedies will help you build your skill(s).

  • When faced with a new issue, challenge, or problem, figure out the cause: Ask why, recognize possible patterns in data, and categorize information in ways that make it clear.
  • Locate the essence of the problem: Look for the underlying principles and work from there. Search your past for similar situations to help solve problems. Ask broad questions.
  • Look for patterns: Search for commonalities in successes and failures. Use the underlying principles to deal with future situations.
  • Expect that you may not get it right the first time: Frequent and short learning cycles provide great opportunities to learn and increase opportunities to find the right answers. Be willing to experiment.
  • Use experts: Seek out expert(s) in your area, and find out how they think and problem-solve. Ask what key questions they apply when solving problems.
  • Turn the problem upside down: Try to assess the mirror image of the problem. Determine what the problem is not, or the least likely thing it could be, or what's missing.
  • Use others: Employ others with diverse backgrounds to help analyze the situation. Come up with questions and discuss them.
  • Use oddball tactics: Pick out anomalies—things that don’t quite fit. Make analogies between what you are working on and a natural occurrence.
  • Encourage yourself to do quick experiments and trials: Try lots of quick, inexpensive experiments to increase your chance of success.
  • Ask more questions: Spend the first half of your time defining and rethinking the problem. Then offer solutions.

Learning from develop-in-place assignments: These part-time develop-in-place assignments will help you build your skill(s).

  • Work for short periods of time in other units or in functions unfamiliar to you.
  • Study and summarize a new program, procedure, or curriculum, and then present it to others.
  • Work on a project that requires travel and study of an issue, and then report to others.
  • Manage, teach, or coach a group of inexperienced people.
  • Take on a tough, undoable project that others have tried and failed.

Learning more from your plan: These additional remedies will help make this development plan more effective for you.

  • Learning to learn better:
    • Keep a learning journal. Examine how you used your strengths and weaknesses, what worked in past experiences, and what didn't. Consider ways to do things differently next time.
    • Learn new and frivolous skills to study how you learn. Try juggling, square dancing, or video games to observe yourself in new learning situations. Discern your tactics and try to apply them to other learning situations.
    • Try some new things out of your normal comfort zone. Try something opposite to your nature. Explore, take a risk, and go beyond your own limits and boundaries.
    • Throw yourself with more vigor than usual into something new. Do something outside your skill set.
    • Preview a plan with a test audience. Explore all sides of an issue with others. Allow the plan to emerge from the process as you do.
  • Learning from experience, feedback, and other people:
    • Learn from those in authority. Distance yourself from your feelings, and analyze what these people do and do not do well. Choose to imitate the successful behavior.
    • Get feedback from those in authority. Communicate that you are open to constructive criticism and are willing to work on issues they view as important.
    • Be open and non-defensive when others offer feedback. Ask for examples and details, and take notes.
    • Learn from mistakes. Focus on "why" more than "what." Don't avoid similar situations for fear of repeating mistakes, but learn and try again. Don't repeat what went wrong more diligently, but try something new. Look for patterns that may be causing the problem.
  • Learning from courses:
    • Participate in insight events. Take a course designed to assess skills and provide feedback to help you develop self-knowledge.

Recommended readings

  • Barner, Robert W.Crossing the Minefield—Tactics for Overcoming Today's Toughest Management Challenges.New York: AMACOM, 1994.
  • Brinkley, Douglas.Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress.New York: Viking Press, 2003.
  • Fradette, Michael, and Steve Michaud.The Power of Corporate Kinetics.New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
  • Francis, Philip H.Product Creation.New York: The Free Press, 2001.
  • Goldenberg, Jacob, and David Mazursky.Creativity in Product Innovation.New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Klein, Gary A.Intuition at Work: Why Developing Your Gut Instincts Will Make You Better at What You Do.New York: Doubleday, 2002.
  • Linsky, Martin, and Ronald A. Heifetz.Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading.Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
  • Manz, Charles C.The Power of Failure: 27 Ways to Turn Life’s Setbacks Into Success.San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2002.
  • McCall, Morgan W., Michael M. Lombardo, and Ann M. Morrison.The Lessons of Experience.Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988.
  • Rosen, Emmanuel.The Anatomy of Buzz.New York: Doubleday, 2000.

Next steps

Copyright © 1992, 1996, 2001-2003 by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This work is derived from the LEADERSHIP ARCHITECT® Competency Library developed and copyrighted by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo for Lominger Limited, Inc.

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success.

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