New Years, birthdays, and other significant milestones are often a time to make big changes—lose the weight, create better work-life balance (especially now that work is happening where we live), and so on.
But what about unlearning the things we think we know—the assumptions we’ve made about how the world works and what it takes to accomplish our goals?
We tend to believe the mindsets and behaviors that have made us successful to date will continue to make us successful in the future. But change doesn’t happen that way—it follows its own path.
Technology changes, the world changes, the market changes. Yet too often, we stay the same, stuck in a world that no longer exists.
“Disruption” has been the running theme in the global economy for the last few decades—you only have to look at the change in lineup of the world’s most valuable companies to see it.
We’re used to saying businesses get disrupted, but the truth is individuals do. It’s our behavior and mindset that are out of sync and that need to shift for us to adapt and avoid being disrupted.
Whether you’re an executive, manager, team lead, or early in your career—we all come to difficult points when doing the things that brought us success in the past is no longer working.
I believe that facing these challenging circumstances is when most of our growth happens. But you have to have the humility to recognize when your existing behavior and thinking is stalling your growth—when it’s time to unlearn.
“You have to have the humility to recognize when your existing behavior and thinking is stalling your growth—when it’s time to unlearn.” Barry O’Reilly
What is Unlearning?
Unlearning is the process of letting go, reframing, and moving away from once-useful mindsets and acquired behaviors that were effective in the past, but now limit success.
It’s not a one-and-done occurrence—it’s a system. If you wait for a crisis before you decide to unlearn, you’ll find it much more difficult.
To succeed in this rapidly changing world, we need a system to recognize when our existing behavior is working (so we continue with it), and when it’s not (so we unlearn).
We’ve got to be able to readily adapt our behavior as the world around us changes.
It’s like the old saying: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In this case, prevention means building up your unlearning “health” through deliberate practice.
We must regularly look for areas to unlearn, relearn, and break through.
Unlearning is not about forgetting or discarding your knowledge—it’s the conscious act of letting go of outdated information and making space new ideas to inform your decision-making and actions.
Relearning means using that new information to take new, uncomfortable steps that will help you get the breakthroughs you’re looking for.
This 3-part cycle is the heart of my Unlearning system—developed from coaching executives from Fortune 500s to the most innovative, scaling startups throughout the globe. It’s about building the capability to quickly recognize when your behaviors are not working and discover how to adapt.
It’s a virtuous system—as you hone the ability to notice where you need to unlearn and how you can relearn, you’ll start to get continuous breakthroughs in your performance.
How to Start Unlearning
People often ask me “Where do I start with unlearning?” The simple answer is to start with yourself—notice the areas where you’re struggling or feeling uncertain in your life or work.
We all know that product features have to be continuously updated and innovated to stay relevant in the market. It’s the same for us humans—we have to update our perceptions, our knowledge, and our behavior to stay relevant in our market.
Identifying What You Need to Unlearn
We’ve all been going through major changes, the likes of which we’ve never experienced before. Maybe it’s a change in how you personally work, or something as large as your strategy to keep your business alive.
Whatever your situation, if you sense it’s time for self-assessment or you might need to switch it up, ask yourself these questions:
- Where have you not been living up to the expectations you have for yourself or achieving the outcomes you’re aiming for?
- What situations are you struggling with or avoiding?
- Where have you tried everything you can think of to solve a problem, but you’re still not getting the breakthrough you’re looking for?
The answers to these questions can provide important signals for what you need to unlearn.
Expanding Your Sphere of Unlearning
Once you begin to get familiar with the process of unlearning, you might naturally start thinking about your teams, your colleagues, and others around you. How can you role model new behaviors to inspire the team to unlearn and relearn?
From the team level, you’ll begin to see unlearning opportunities in the organizations you work with, and as you continue expanding out, you might even discover insights for the world as a whole. Unlearning happens at all these different levels, because innovation and change happens at all these levels.
One great exemplar of unlearning is Christian Metzner, (CIO) of Volkswagen Financial Services UK [listen to our podcast interview].
He regularly employs what he calls “culture hacks”—small, highly visible actions, to role model or surface new behaviors that can benefit both himself and the organization.
For example, he has let team members be “CIO for the day.” He refrains from interfering in their decision making for that day (even when the company experienced a sudden website outage!) He sits as an observer in all the meetings, reflecting, reviewing, and considering what he would or could differently.
The Characteristics of Great Unlearners
I’ve coached the Unlearning system now to amazing leaders all over the world—the most competent and high-achieving people I’ve ever experienced working with.
I regularly find that the best unlearners are people that cultivate certain characteristics within themselves that allow them to continuously adapt to changing circumstances.
Although there are many such characteristics that help the process, I believe there are really just five that make the biggest difference: curiosity, ownership, commitment, comfort with discomfort, and creating safety.
Say you’re working in a team and you give someone more junior a new task to work on. They suddenly start to solve it in a way that’s different than you would.
What’s your natural reaction? That they’re doing it wrong? That’s a strong signal that you’re closing down your mind to new information and ways of working.
A great example of curiosity is the head of Global Markets at HSBC. He would sit with the recent graduates and give them problems that he was actually working on to see how they might solve them.
By seeing the new techniques and new tools they would use, he’d actually challenge his existing mental models of the world. Better still, it had a great cultural impact in the organization to see the most senior person talking to the most junior people, and learning from them! [Hear the story with Joe Noreña, former COO of Global Markets, HSBC].
When you don’t get the results you’re aiming for, what’s your usual response? Do you blame someone else? Do you blame the other team?
Or do you own the results and think about what you can do differently to impact the outcome? People who are great unlearners own the results.
Because they come from a place of truth rather than ego, they want the real information to make better decisions—not to cast blame on others.
Unlearning requires commitment, because you’re going to have to do things that you’re not good at and tackle more and more difficult tasks to truly unlearn.
One way to strengthen your commitment is to consider the likely outcomes of staying the course when something isn’t working.
Comfort with Being Uncomfortable
Discomfort comes with the territory. Great unlearners consciously go outside their comfort zone and find their edges with excellence to adapt and improve. It’s not always pleasant to go through the unlearning process, but those who persevere are far more likely to succeed and reach the payoff they’re after.
Start small and focus on yourself. Create safety by taking small steps, safe-to-fail experiments and creating fast feedback loops. That way you can learn what works and what doesn’t as you try new behaviors to grow your capabilities.
Now is Always a Great Time for Unlearning
In times past, an individual’s knowledge would last a lifetime. Indeed, knowledge 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—hence the need to consider a system of unlearning.
I’ve seen what enables certain leaders to accelerate and what makes others stop in their tracks.
Exceptional leaders have discovered it’s not how smart they are, how much they know, how long they’ve been in an industry, or what they have learned that determines their success. It’s the ability to recognize when to let go of outdated thinking and behaviors so they can innovate new mindsets and methods that helps them achieve extraordinary results.
So think BIG, but start small and learn fast to make progress, especially in highly uncertain times.
No matter what your situation or goals, building unlearning into your routine can yield surprising benefits. So what’s one thing you need to unlearn in order to succeed this year? Send me an email and let me know!