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The Art Of Unlearning What Works


As an organizational psychologist and a firm believer in continuous development, I have often found myself in the position of advising people on creative ways to keep learning throughout their careers. I have worked with clients seeking to become “learning organizations” – where individuals and teams are continuing to figure out what works through learning in order to outperform their competitors. Research, experiment, succeed, fail, learn, improve, repeat.

As someone who has dedicated his professional life to the topic of organizational culture, I realize that groups of people, over time and through collective experience, figure out what works and what doesn’t. Doing so allows them to begin to bake into their organization’s systems and processes methods for repeating successes and minimizing failures (or they cease to exist). Doing so allows members of these organizations to routinize processes and behaviors that lead to success so they can utilize their mental capacity on other things. Easy enough in theory.

The real challenge presents itself when the old ways of doing things that once yielded success stop working (or stop working as well as they once did). It is during these times that I often get people reaching out to me to help them figure out what to do in order to right the ship before things go too far afoul. In all of these situations, some common realities have bubbled up that are important to acknowledge.

Reality #1: You don’t operate in a vacuum. 

If we all operated our businesses in an alternate reality where outside influences didn’t affect us we would simply need to figure out the most effective way of delivering our products or services, optimize those processes, and watch the billions roll in. Unfortunately, the world has a funny way of “rewarding” companies that operate without adapting to external changes in the market. Just ask those typewriter manufacturers. Or Kodak. Or any of the countless other companies that were leaders in their fields until the world evolved around them and they had their lunch eaten (technical term) by a competitor who evolved faster than they did.

Reality #2: Technology will force you to evolve faster than you may want to. 

No other external evolution has rocked the worlds of so many businesses as the advances in technology that we have seen in the last decades. To make matters worse (if you’re on the lagging side of things technologically speaking) is that the pace that technology continues to innovate and evolve is getting exponentially faster over time.

This reality means that organizations that may have been comfortable having mastered life in a more static environment can now be quickly stymied or disrupted by competitors who are able to adapt more quickly or by a pesky startup that can nimbly adapt to changes to better meet customer needs and expectations.

Reality #3: The networked nature of our economy means that incremental change is increasingly being replaced by exponential change. 

While this is largely due to the advances in technology discussed above, it warrants its own call-out here. Mark Bonchek suggests in his article in Harvard Business Review that, “Companies like Google, Uber, Airbnb, and Facebook focus on how to remove limits rather than set them. They look beyond controlling the pipe that delivers a product and instead builds platforms that enable others to create value.” It is precisely this approach that unleashes the possibility of massive change.

Reality #4: Ignoring realities #1, #2, and #3 won’t make them go away. 

You can certainly take the “head in the sand” approach and argue that Realities #1 and #2 don’t apply to you or your industry for one reason or another. Your market share is significant or your balance sheet has never looked better. Famous last words.

Ignoring reality doesn’t inoculate you. You have spent years learning what works and your customers have rewarded you by doing business with you. Yeah, things are changing around you but your performance is still strong (for now). If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sound familiar?

Reality #5: There is a way out for you and your teams. 

The good news is that there are ways to position yourself for future, long-term success in this fast-paced operating environment but it involves doing something that comes very unnaturally to us from an organizational culture perspective. We must learn to “unlearn”.

Those organizations that are able to outperform their competitors will be those that are able to see an impending change in the environment and unlearn what works today in order to adapt quickly to what requirements the new operating environment will hold.

And therein lies the real problem. We have forever focused on the importance of learning. What we’ve failed to master is the power to unlearn – our ability to take an honest look at our mental model and make the conscious decision to work outside of it. Destin Sanlin does a great job of demonstrating how difficult it can be in this TEDEd video. But how, exactly, do we master the art of unlearning in ways that drive long-term performance? Here are a few things to think about.

  1. Continually prove that what you believe to be true actually is.
  2. Force yourself to ask, “Is there another way?” </l/span>
  3. Acknowledge that you may, in fact, not actually know what’s best.
  4. Challenge the beliefs and assumptions within your organization and be open to letting people challenge the beliefs and assumptions you, personally, hold to be true about what ‘right’ looks like.
  5. Give yourself time and space to master new ways of thinking and behaving.
  6. Ask a trusted third party to give you feedback on their observations of your mental model and how it shows up in your interactions with others. 

Those individuals and organizations that will excel in the dynamic markets of tomorrow will be those who are able to knock themselves out of the “rut” of success and challenge themselves to unlearn what has always worked for them in order to test their assumptions and beliefs. Only in doing this will they be able to identify areas where their “usual way of doing things” may threaten their future success.

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