Unlearning – a critical part of learning

Photo credit - Frederica Campanaro

Photo credit – Frederica Campanaro

Have you ever heard the term “unlearning”? It is just as important to progress as learning is. It is not about forgetting. It is a whole different way of looking at learning.

The problem with learning
In his article entitled “Why the problem with learning is unlearning”, Mark Bonchek (2016) suggests that in times of great change, to keep up we have to improve how we learn. He proposes the key to this is actually unlearning, that we need to rethink the way we look at the world and operate in it. We can’t keep doing things the way they have already been done. We have to embrace a new learning paradigm.

… we are operating with mental models that have grown outdated or obsolete, from strategy to marketing to organization to leadership. To embrace the new logic of value creation, we have to unlearn the old one …
~ Bonchek (2016)

What’s the difference between learning and unlearning?

  • In learning, you add new skills or knowledge to what you already know.
  • In unlearning, you step outside your existing mental model (the way you think about something and how it works) so that you can choose a different one.

Easily said.

This sort of change means changing an established way of doing something that is well-ingrained and takes real effort to effect. If it is a physical thing – it is easier to see the consequences of not changing eg driving a car where the wipers and indicator are on a different sides of the steering wheel than you are used to. Every time you turn a corner, you turn the wipers on – and so you get some feedback that are applying knowledge of the old system. Thinking and behavioural change do not always give you such direct reminders.

Paradigm changes are not new
Throughout history people have had to change the way they think about things as technological advances have facilitated change. The rate of change has escalated though, with a significant change not only to the technology involved but also the way of seeing solutions. This increase in complexity requires a non-linear way of approaching and solving problems.

New world business success reflects new paradigms
I am sure that you have seen commentary about  new world business models. They refer to businesses like:

  • Uber – a taxi firm, that owns no taxis
  • Facebook  – a popular media company that creates no content
  • Alibaba – a retailer  that carries no stock.
  • Airbnb – an accommodation provider that owns no property

They are connected – externally via social business networks and internally via various real-time communication channels. They are social – operating through a socal networking model, where people are helpful and transparent, answering questions and providing information rather than being sales and promotion focused. They have presence in a variety of platforms eg websites, industry portals, social networking sites. They are intelligent – using analytics to monitor connections, interactions and presence and measure associated business results.

This business model is very different to traditional product/service provider models that were structured around markets, competition and economics. Social businesses co-create things. They set-up a network and infrastructure for individuals to be able to do business in their network. Networking, relationship-building, connecting and flexibility in responding, are all important characteristics of operating in these business environments.

It is not the same way of thinking. The business structures are different. The assets are intangible. Roles are less defined. It stands to reason, that it requires a different way of thinking, a process of unlearning.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
~ Albert Einstein

The process of unlearning
Boncheck suggests three steps that are important to the process of unlearning. 

  • Awareness – you need to recognise that the old mental model is no longer relevant or effective
    There is a lot at stake here. Recognising (and accepting) that an old way of doing business is no longer tenable is a major realisation. Our way of thinking is not always obvious to ourselves. We are not always conscious of our own mental models, don’t recognise that they are outmoded, and/or that they impact our own sense of career identity.
  • Finding or creating a new model that can better achieve your goals
    Seeing a new model is often done through the lens of the old. New technologies may be adopted but used in an old way. For example, rather than thinking about marketing channels, businesses adopting a social business model paradigm need to think of their context and how they operate within that.
  • Ingraining new mental habits
    Learning new ways of operating is always accompanied by a tendency to slip into old ways of thinking and old ways of doing things. Creating triggers that alert you to the model you are working from may help. For example, a shift in language can help to reinforce a shift in mindset.

 It ain’t easy
Learning something that is so different can seem out of our grasp. I liken it to chasing mercury around on a plate. (Evidence of time mis-spent in the science lab in high school). It is impossible to hold down. 

Watch this video about unlearning how to ride a bike (<8 minutes)It highlights some of the difficulties of this concept. Our own cognitive biases have a lot to answer for.

Adopting a new paradigm is possible. It requires effort and continued practise. There is no linear relationship between how much effort is required for outcome. Neural pathways, like networked businesses work in their own way with surprising outcomes. 

What’s your experience on unlearning?

Source: Bonchek, Peter. 2016. “Why the problem with learning is unlearningHarvard Business Review. 3 November 2016.

Share your comments here

%d bloggers like this: