In my experience working all around the world with executives and teams—from disruptive startups to the Fortune 500—I’ve seen firsthand the struggle both great and growing leaders face as they seek to lead innovation in their markets.

My inspiration to write Unlearn came from recognizing that while learning new things was tough, what was even more difficult—but also more impactful—was helping people identify when to let go of their existing mindsets, behaviors, and methods, especially the ones that had made them successful in the past.

What I’ve seen this year is that the people who have cultivated that capability within themselves—who accepted that change is constant and built systems to adapt as quickly as possible—are being more successful when shock-events happen.

I’ll share two examples from companies I’ve been working with that many people would not think of as being responsive and agile: the world’s largest airline and one of the biggest banks.

They’ve both shown that even massive corporations with entrenched ways of operating can change and excel in a world of uncertainty by embracing the Cycle of Unlearning.

What is Unlearning?

In times past, an individual’s knowledge would last a lifetime. Indeed, much would be passed down for many generations and still be highly useful.

Yet, as the pace of innovation increases, once useful knowledge now becomes rapidly obsolete. But instead of adapting, most people find themselves stuck in their habitual patterns of thinking and behaving. They don’t recognize the new situational reality until it bites them.

Even highly successful people often find themselves faced with questions like:

  • Why am I not living up to my expectations?
  • Why can’t I solve this problem?
  • Why do I constantly avoid taking on this particular challenge?
  • I’ve tried everything I can think of—how can I get a breakthrough?

The key is to expect change, notice the signals, and make the necessary adjustments. This requires not just learning new skills or gaining new knowledge, but unlearning what is no longer helpful.

I define “unlearning” as the process of letting go of, moving away from, and reframing the mindsets and acquired behaviors that were effective in the past, but now limit our success. 

The Cycle of Unlearning isn’t a one-and-done event. It’s a system—a habitual, deliberate, and repeating practice of letting go and adapting to the situational reality of the present as we look to the future. It involves three steps:

  1. Unlearn: This first step requires courage, self-awareness, and humility to accept that your own beliefs, mindsets, or behaviors are limiting your potential and current performance and that you must consciously move away from them.
  2. Relearn: As you unlearn your limiting-but-ingrained methods, behaviors, and thinking, you can take in new data, information, and perspectives.
  3. Breakthrough: New information and insights inform and guide new behaviors, perspective, and mindset. Breakthroughs provide an opportunity to reflect on the lessons we’ve learned and provide a springboard for tackling bigger and more audacious challenges.

You can use this system to solve all sorts of problems and challenges or leverage any kind of opportunity. In doing so, you’ll be empowered to make better decisions when faced with difficult circumstances and uncertain situations.

Obstacles to Unlearning

Most leaders today know they must constantly transform the way they do business—making decisions much more quickly, responding to fast-changing markets with greater agility, better addressing customer needs, and more.

One of the great problems with moving from old ways of doing business to new is that the neural pathways of leaders become fixed and rigid over time. They get caught in a myopic view of the world around them, mainly informed and biased by their daily field of operations.

It’s understandable—the push for immediate results, coupled with overloaded schedules and pressure to execute decisions and deliver faster, provide them with few opportunities to reflect on results.

Plans get interrupted by problems and context-switching becomes an uncontrolled, hidden cost. Many leaders never have the time to just think—to deeply consider problems and potential alternative options.

As a result, they implement tactical solutions that optimize short-term business efficiency and revenue capture, but ultimately lose sight of the bigger vision, challenges, and experiences for their customers.

Beyond these fundamental patterns, other obstacles may be internal, external, or contextual, but whatever their origin, they conspire to keep us firmly stuck in the status quo. They include:

  • Our leadership conditioning: underlying assumptions of leadership based on our training, experience, definition of success, and observations about other leaders we respect, many of whom still operate on 19th-century leadership principles.
  • Our knowledge threshold: Our current understanding of how the world works is based on the information we have available and consider true and correct. We fill up with expertise and give up on what’s too challenging. Our beginner’s mind is forgotten, and so, too, our quest to continue to explore.
  • Our biases: The preprogrammed ways we attempt to simplify the complexity of the world, often based on poor information and inadequate situational awareness.
  • Our desire to always be correct: Ego is often the enemy of self-awareness, and it is the trigger for situations of high stress, fear, and distrust. Most organizations promote based on breadth of knowledge and knowhow—hence the risk of embarrassment at being wrong raises barriers to engaging in the uncertain or unknown (where growth happens).
  • Our focus on reward and recognition: Corporate structures reward the status quo and those who behave and do as they are told. We create contingent relationships and tell humans if they “do this,” they will “get that.” Once framed this way, we naturally only focus on the “get that” side of the equation, creating unintended consequences (e.g. the 2008 global financial crisis).
  • Our inability to deal with uncertainty and risk: Research shows humans naturally prefer predictable consequences (both positive and negative) over uncertainty. Translating this into a business context, we do everything we can as leaders to avoid uncertain outcomes.
  • Our curiosity (or lack thereof): Curiosity is what drives us to step out of the status quo of our day-to-day existence, pushing the boundaries of what we know. For instance, when was the last time someone presented you with an idea at odds with your viewpoint, and you responded with, “Interesting, tell me more,” instead of immediately rejecting it?
  • Our environment: The context, structure, and social norms of our workplace, the industries and markets in which we do business, the communities in which we live, and the world as a whole all impact our openness to change. What our environment values, we value. Does yours value unlearning?

The key to breaking through these barriers to unlearning is to start small and deliberately practice. Often, people focus on the mindset shifts that are needed for change, but I’ve found that actually the better way to think differently is to act differently. That’s what helped two of my clients—global leaders in their industries—develop the capabilities that helped them weather the crises of 2020.

Case Studies in Unlearning

Wells Fargo: Managing COVID small business relief funds overnight

Secil Tabli Watson, Wells Fargo’s EVP for Digital Solutions for Business, was kind enough to join me on the podcast recently. I started working with the Wells Fargo team in early 2019, helping them rethink the way they fund and deliver work.

Historically, like most large organizations, Wells Fargo was stuck in the paradigm of big projects that were difficult and slow to deliver, never getting as much done as it wanted in the timeframe available. But by the time COVID hit, it had developed skills and techniques that allowed it to respond quickly to that situation.

One of the big challenges Secil had to deal with this year was the Paycheck Protection Program, where the US government offered pandemic relief loans to small businesses, distributed through banks. Overnight, the banks had to figure out how to deliver this brand new, unprecedented program.

Because of the training we’d been doing through 2019, Secil was able to approach this maneuver in a radically different way. She didn’t think about it as a project—how long it would take and how many people it would involve—but rather as a problem with key outcomes to achieve in a short period of time.

She determined the toughest questions and micro-problems that needed addressing, and she started seeking out the best people in the company to solve them. She quickly pulled a small team of about 10 people together that delivered a usable service literally in a couple of days.

This would have been unthinkable a year prior. Unlearning the project approach and adopting a focus on determining outcomes and bringing together key players into an empowered, creative team proved highly successful.

American Airlines: the power of starting small

American Airlines, the world’s largest airline, was in a similar pattern. It was also stuck in a big-industry mentality of big ideas and big projects, trying to get them done faster. But it was always falling short of its aspirations. VP of Customer Technology, Steven Leist also joined me on the podcast to discuss the company’s unlearning journey (episode coming 12/9/20).

The learning for American’s team was to get away from thinking big and building big. They needed to keep thinking big but switch to starting with small changes for smaller customer sets so they could learn faster what would work for them or not.

The results? They were able to stand up 2100 contactless kiosks in 230 airports in response to the COVID crisis, in just six weeks. This boosted touchless check-ins 145%, making the boarding process safer. They saw more positive metrics in terms of customer experience, efficiency in reducing handling times by 17 seconds, and dealing with issues arising from flight changes from COVID.

Smaller, more frequent changes also came to the AA.com website. The web team had been releasing updates twice a month, and they’d thought that was as good as they could do. But then they started challenging their assumptions, thinking bigger and releasing every change in real time. They started small, exploring better automation and descaling their work to targeted changes, quickly achieving 40 releases in three weeks!

Typically in the airline industry, the belief is that with any change, you have to serve everyone right from the start—every type of ticket, every type of journey. But AA shifted to starting smaller, for example by serving one type of ticket with a given change.

That allowed it to build simpler initial solutions and ship them to that smaller group of customers early. Then the team could find out what actually worked and what didn’t, and scale their ideas from there.

Keys to Unlearning

There are immense challenges to unlearning and relearning effectively, and we create many of these challenges ourselves. First, you must be willing to adapt and be open to information that goes against your inherent beliefs—that may be at odds with what you have always been told or taught to do. Second, you may need to learn how to learn again. Finally, you must create an environment for relearning to happen in a meaningful, yet often challenging, space outside your existing comfort zone.

The challenges consistently prove to be well worth facing, as the above examples are just two of the many I’ve encountered and supported over the years.

My challenge to you is to ask yourself how you can make 2021 your year of Unlearning, for extraordinary results.