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What I Finally Got About “Unlearning”

by David Brock on November 14th, 2013

Unlearning has become a popular concept recently.  At first, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it, I tended to think it a clever play on words.  But over time, I’ve started to grasp the importance of “unlearning.”

When I first heard the concept, in my warped mind, I likened it to a form of “forgetting,”  which all of us are all to familiar with.  Forgetting has nothing to do with unlearning, forgetting is just sloppiness, carelessness, and lack of discipline.  Yeah, I’m being a little tough, we all forget–but it’s so easy to not to be forgetful.  We’ve great tools to help us not forget–to do lists, apps on smart phones, and so forth.  So forgetting is no excuse.

Unlearning is different.  It’s a structured conscious act.  It takes courage and discipline to unlearn.  It requires letting go of many of our preconceived notions.  It may require us to let go of much of what has made us successful in the past.   But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The importance of unlearning suddenly struck me when I was meeting with the CEO of a client.  He posed an interesting question, “What’s holding us back?”

“What’s holding us back,” is a profound question—both from an individual and organizational point of view.  It impacts how we perform, how our organizations perform, how our customers perform.

The answers to “What’s holding us back,” can be varied.  It’s roots can be found in things likes:

“It’s the way I’ve (we’ve) always done things……”

“I’ve (we’ve) tried that before…..”

“But we’re different….”

“I’ve (we’ve) been doing this for years, it’s always worked (even though it isn’t working as well any more.)”

“Everyone in our industry/markets does it this way….”

I’ve written about this before, we become prisoners of our own experience.  Whether as individuals or organizations, we’ve years of experience–much of it based on great success.  We keep doing more of the same, maybe updated a little.  Maybe with a veneer of technology to make it look cooler, but at it’s core, it’s the same thing we’ve always done.

It impacts everything–attitudes, beliefs, values, behaviors, strategies, systems, process, tools.  These create our collective means of how we’ve always behaved, how we’ve always gotten things done.  They may have served us well–in fact they are probably what made us very successful in the past.

But if it isn’t working any more, if it isn’t working as well as it has in the past, it starts holding us back.  Doing what we’ve always done, but working harder, longer, more intensely doesn’t make it more effective.

This bring up another dimension—the “C” word—Change.  We may recognize that we are prisoners of our own experiences.  We may realize that we aren’t moving forward.  We may recognize our current methods, processes, approaches and tools aren’t serving us well.  But if the fear of changing is greater than the pain of what we are experiencing, then we simply won’t change.

Sometimes, we decide to change–but not too much.  We evolve and tweak what we’ve always done.  We add a new layer onto old practices.  Soon the weight of all those layers crush us.   We keep one foot firmly planted in what we have always done, one planted in new practices, but like standing with one foot on a dock and the other in a boat, it becomes impossible to maintain balance.

We try to hedge our bets and manage the risk.  We never fully commit to the new course of action.

So often, everything we’ve learned.  Everything that has made us successful, as individuals or organizations, is what’s holding us back.  Moving forward is difficult until we begin to unlearn all those things.  It’s not forgetting them.  It’s consciously analyzing what you are doing, understanding what’s working, what’s holding you back, and why.  It’s being purposeful about changing. 

It requires courage to let go of the familiar and to explore the unknown–not having the answers but searching systematically for them.  It requires thoughtfulness to evaluate new alternatives, approaches, strategies, and methods.  It may mean we have to totally reinvent ourselves as individuals and organizations.

 Determining what we need to unlearn, then opening ourselves to learning something new and embracing it, enables us to move forward.

So as you think about your own performance or that of your organization, ask yourself “What’s holding you back?”  In answering that question, you may discover you have to “unlearn” something to move forward.

Separately, “unlearning” is an important idea in engaging our customers, creating Insight and Value.  But I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.



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  1. Brian MacIver permalink

    Unlearning is the hardest par of Learning.

    In my first MBA tutorial the Lecturer said:

    “Forget everything you have been taught,
    now you have to LEARN for yourself!”

    Great Blog, Dave I look forward to part two.

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