SPECIAL REPORT - Harvard Innovation & Learning Agility - Blog

Confronted with the unknown, how would you respond? Sometimes the question is enough to evoke fear, to pump an over-compensating confidence or to rush a miffed assessment of irrelevance to an obviously insolent question. However, for some at Harvard, the answer to dealing with the unknown is simple: “barefoot irreverence”.

Crimson Oak recently had the privilege of participating in a three (3) day Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative – Think Tank held in Cambridge, MA. It provided the catalyst for us to pen this report. “Barefoot Irreverence”?! Hard to imagine a term less apt for the success of business professionals. But in the halls of the 375 year old institution, business & education professors and former country ministers were singing its praises. The structural shift, caused by the financial crisis of 2008, has left workers largely responsible for navigating the new job landscape by themselves. 

The most successful ones have embraced the principles of learning agility. Google notes that what makes great “Google-ers”are those who can “navigate through ambiguity” and are flexible learners. “Barefoot Irreverence” speaks to your will to fight against conformity and to battle for your vision, which is at the heart of innovation. Might “learning agility” – a more polite term than the aforementioned barefoot reference – provide you with a framework for this decade’s many career unknowns? We explore the learning agility concept and mind-set in this Special Report and later, in a Learning Agility Webinar


Naked. That’s condition that opportunity often finds us in. Opportunity comes un-announced. Forcing you to meet it only under whatever experience you have at moment. The ability to quickly assemble the knowledge at hand and apply it to a new situation defines the agile learner. Learning Agility, as we define and use the term, revolves around extracting meaning from your fluid experiences and re-assembling them on-demand for immediate possible solutions. By unpacking the four characteristics identified in Korn Ferry’s definitive note and meshing it with Harvard’s approach to innovation, we create a refined framework useful for your business career success. A crucial fifth element has been added to the popular four-prong framework - empathy. Similar to that feeling you have after being told the glorious history of that otherwise ravaged, nameless building, it is our hope that your view on your professional life will be changed after reading this Special Report. Crimson Oak’s five Learning Agility core elements: 1) pattern recognition; 2) team orientation; 3) willingness to brain-storm & experiment; 4) meaningful impact; and 5) empathy.



MBAs are not generally thought of as the most innovative lot. However, over the past few years, the study of entrepreneurship – in particular tech entrepreneurship - has seen wide-spread elevation to core MBA curricula and innovation centers built on corporate campuses. The case study method, pioneered by HBS in business education, emphasizes pattern recognition as a way of fostering innovation. From passive reading to interactive Socratic- style debates of cases, pattern recognition tools have been rapidly expanding. Modern pattern recognition tools for training and recruiting business professionals include: assessments, simulations, and personality profiles.  These tools are now harnessing data-driven “smart” analytics to rank candidates and teach better decision-making skills.

For instance, “Integrated Reasoning” – a new segment on the GMAT exam introduced in June 2012 – focuses on the student’s ability to yield insights from data-dense mini-cases. This skill of pattern recognition is also critical to an executive’s strategic acumen in applying insights derived from monitoring other businesses and then applying them to his own business model. With the deluge of data available through websites, location based apps, behavioral tracking and smartphones, smart analytics have become common-place.


ACTION: Analyze Time-Based Cycles – Recognition of patterns in your life requires a panoramic view and then granular insight for action. Consider your own schedule against your company's or graduate program’s schedule. In wrestling with the projection of both schedules aim for at least a 3-month forward calendar based on the data and behavior of the past 3+ years. Some possible data to review include: your learning modality, that is, how do you learn (video, reading, in-person etc.); when are you the most alert; and an organization’s projected recruiting cohort composition – for instance, HBS accepted a whopping 36% of candidates with engineering degrees for the Class 2013: a number significantly higher than prior cohorts. Often within time-based cycles, there are “inflection points”, periods which require increased effort, attention and better decision-making.




Who in your life will not allow you to fail? Disarming in its simplicity and disturbing in the paucity of the response, the question was asked by author Keith Ferrazi in his best-selling book “Who’s Got Your Back?”. At the Think Tank Professor David Gergen, a CNN contributor, and Director of Harvard Public Policy Program also astutely noted the downside of social media – abundant but shallow relationships.

Reflecting on your life, you may realize that each seminal achievement whether that be acceptance to a coveted college or MBA program, promotion at work or switching careers to more rewarding field was the result of not only your effort but also that of your team’s effort. A devoted spouse, a mentoring program, loyal assistants, trusted advisors, supportive alumni – are all our team. Your team provides perspective to reach a creative solution and, the most effective ones, also provide a safety net or “rescue loop” for you to have failed attempts and to bounce back. It’s the latter point which we find fascinating, rescue loops when implemented properly can provide almost risk-free failure. A truly liberating concept and one raised during the Think Tank session as a technique to foster innovation.

Collaborations diffuse risk and create fail-safes or rescue loops. The Harvard Innovation Lab (Hi-Lab) is an ambitious initiative on a university-wide level to serve as an innovation hub for the university’s 13 colleges. Industry-wide higher education, including business education, has been besmirched by criticisms for excessiveness and lack of collaboration. With the world’s largest endowment of $33 billion Harvard perhaps has the ultimate rescue loop. The fact that it still actively seeks partnerships and collaborative efforts speaks to the benefits of a communal approach. Harvard recently looked outside its campus boundaries – albeit not too far - to partner with MIT on another landmark initiative a virtual platform for courses: eDX

ACTION: Conduct A / B Testing – Take the leap. Have faith. Only to discover the horror of a parachute with holes in it. Holes in your team are just as frightening. Rescue loops need to be tested. “A/B” testing measures how different groups (“Group A” and “Group B”) respond to the same stimuli or how the same group responds to different stimuli. Use your creativity in devising the appropriate “real world” test. Know who truly has your back.



Think (?)

Self-authentication through adulation has always been a schmuck’s game. The transgressive culture espoused in a “brain-storming” session does not need lead to mass anarchy or to wasteful questioning of everything. Its effectiveness relies on the pre-cursors of self-reflection, analysis (pattern recognition) and trust - of yourself and of your team mates (team orientation). At its core, the key difference between suffering through a mandated “brain storming” session - the ones where you are bribed with free glazed pastry - and an energizing, free-flowing one may be your curiosity. Harvard’s transgressive research philosophy is found in its mission “Veritas” and a yearning for a deeper understanding of “truth”. The accomplishments and re-inventions are too numerous to attempt to list in this note. HBS' Dean Nohria has spent his first two years dramatically modernizing Harvard MBA program.

Remembering that genuine childhood curiosity is key. As one of the panelist at the Think Tank session fondly recounted, a young Charles Darwin stumbled upon an extraordinary, colorful beetle and was so intrigued by it, that he decided he would have to bring it home with him to study. Momentarily befuddled, with no jar or container to trap the beetle, he made a decision. Young Charles Darwin, filled with curiousity, decided to “pop the beetle in his mouth” and sprint home to examine it.


ACTION: Explore Curiously – Dalliance or development?  Exploration seems to dance between both states. Start from a place of genuine intrigue, with your choice of topic unbounded by practical constraints. Your approach to the target can be unorthodox . For instance, a problem of modernity can be explored by unearthing the topic’s history; a stalled career switch can be reinvigorated by hosting a Meetup of local experts in a nearby town; and business-oriented target subjects can be understood through the lens of the arts (museums, live performances etc.). Global travel, however brief, is perhaps the most immersive and beneficial exploration that will aid in your brain-storming



Why does this matter? The question is increasingly being asked of both purveyors and consumers of the education and training. Holders of $1 trillion USD of student, bankruptcy-protected debt have shedded patient ideals and are instead clobbering universities with gritty terms such as “ROI” and “payback period”. Sugar-coated advice of “do what you love” serves only to relieve the advisor of further obligation to provide personalized, contextual insight to the petitioner.

Passion balanced by pragmatism seems best. At the Think Tank session, the term “relevance gap” echoed in panelists’ stories of innercity high school youth and college students demanding that lessons have meaningful consequences in their lives.  By closing this gap, they saw marked relative improvement in student outcomes regardless if the setting was Camben, NJ or Cambridge, MA. Agile learners keep meaning in their flexible approach to career and life-long learning. To divorce yourself from your contribution to global history is to erase yourself from mattering.

The need for meaning motivated HBS to innovate its curriculum. In response to these demands of alumni and corporate recruiters, HBS added field studies where students are mandated to have a global “field study” and put their theories / training to work in the “real-world”. Similarly, a few years ago, Harvard undergrad admissions augmented its financial aid to include for working-class parents, making tuition free for accepted students from working class families. Meaningful indeed. As leadership expert Jim Collins states “The great leaders I’ve studied are all people whose energy and drive are directed outward. It’s not about themselves. It’s about something greater than themselves.”


ACTION: Find Meaning – Family or Society? The choice refers to the scope of the impact of your goals. Innovation often requires setting a course to uncharted territory that is powered by your passion. The “true north” of your compass leans towards pragmatic impact it can have broadly on society or the improvement of the lives of your loved ones. Consider taking scheduled moments to ask yourself why you are investing your time in this project. Take the time to re-connect with this motivation. Being in touch with this meaning, will enable you to be reinvigorated on your journey. And, most importantly, answer the irritating question resoundingly: this is why it matters.



Corporate titans are empathetic…usually to other corporate titans. Empathy for your affinity group comes naturally. A world that is more interwoven with nimble cross-functional teams and randomly assigned study groups, demands a broader capacity for empathy. Today’s networked eco-systems enable the individual to have tremendous impact on driving or stifling innovation within the organization. But can empathy be taught or tested? In a recent interview, Dr. Helen Reiss Director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program of Harvard Medical School noted that by teaching doctors to have more empathy “the number of health dollars that we save…could be truly phenomenal”. The doctors’ desired empathy stretches beyond their medical peers to the patient, the patient’s family, the staff, the pharmacist etc. The medical field, like the business community, is still resistant to incorporating “fuzzy” topics – such as empathy - in core training, leaving empathy’s advocates to fight for knowledge to support its merits.

Empathy, the ability to relate to others and glean insight from non-verbal cues, can accelerate innovation in several ways such as better service to customers. For example, ironically Steve Jobs while not known for his empathy towards his co-workers was extremely empathetic with his customers leadinng him to design innovative products. America’s young professionals, in particular, face an “empathy deficit” according to industry magazine Psychology Today. The empathy of college students has dropped 40% over the past decade or so. HBS’s “MBA Oath” asked graduates to pledge that they would no wrong in their business life.  The effort aimed to inject empathy and ethics into business graduates.  The recognition of the need for more empathy is also found in the rise of ethics classes on business school campuses and in corporate conference centers. In fact, the Gates Foundation recently invested in empathy: granting over $1 million to develop adolescent learning games/ mobile apps to teach empathy. For the agile learner in the 21st century to be successful in career a deeper capacity for empathy will be essential.


ACTION: Recognize Feelings – Feelings matter. Take the time to recognize the verbal and non-verbal communication of emotions within yourself and your team.   In business negotiations empathy can be a distinguishing factor.  For instance, empathy will enable better communication by tailoring your message to each stakeholder's need.  This often builds trust among team members leading to less rounds of edits, less mis-understandings and better team performance.  Become more cognizant of word choice, tone of voice and body language to gauge sentiment. Circulating roles or role-playing is a simple tactic that can make latent feelings emerge. For an empathetic culture to be sustained, actions will have to be consistent by leaders in everyday business actions.


“Innovation” has become a ubitiqous buzz-word: it was used over 30,000 times by U.S. corporations’ public annual reports in 2011 and is in more than a quarter of business schools’ mission statements. “Learning Agility” – a much less popular term - requires flexibility and authenticity – not marketing gimmicks for its effectiveness. Your ability to effectively apply its principles – Pattern Recognition / Team Orientation / Brainstorming / Meaningful Impact / Empathy – requires the opportunity to innovate. If necessary, reinvent yourself or relocate should the opportunity to innovate not exist within your current organization. These five (5) principles provide a bed-rock and advocate a flexible approach to building your career in the 21st century. Don’t wait until a crisis to truly embrace an agile learning mind-set. Grow & Lead.