Why you need to unlearn in order to learn

Why you need to unlearn in order to learn

We are living in an era of digital disruption. In order to stay relevant, companies and the people who serve those companies need to constantly adapt the way things are done in order to be innovative and to remain profitable.  In order to become part of a learning organization that constantly evolves – you need to adopt a culture of continuous learning.

Learning vs Unlearning

The concept of learning new skills is not a new one. The problem is unlearning. In every topic or skill that you have experience with, what you currently know is based on a mental model that has now become outdated or obsolete based on current norms and realities. In order for you to embrace the new way of thinking, you must first unlearn the old model.

Unlearning is not about forgetting. It is about mentally choosing an alternative model. When you learn, you add new skills or knowledge to what you already know. When you unlearn, you step outside that mental model and choose a different way of thinking.

A simple example of this is how we relate to people in the organisation. The old mental model was very functional, very silo. If you are in sales, you needed to deal with only sales people and follow the hierarchical chain to escalate a problem to the Sales Manager who would talk to the Operations Manager if you had a concern on operations. Today, companies are leaning more towards being open-networked with less hierarchy. This means that you must adapt your mental model of “following the hierarchy” and become more collaborative. It is okay for you to go directly to the Operations Team to deal with your query and also include your Sales Manager in the process – this is how problems get solved quickly in an era when time is a commodity.

A 3-Part Process to Unlearning

  1. Recognise that the old mental model is no longer relevant or effective.
  2. Find or create a new model that can better achieve your goals.
  3. Ingrain the new mental habits. Your brain need to adapt to the new way of thinking. As soon as you begin to speak or act in accordance with the old model – change your thought and action immediately.

We are living in a fully-enforced digital age. The skill of unlearning old mental models is critical to your career if you are to thrive in an area of distributed, integrated and globalized networks.

Closing Thoughts

  1. Research has found that your ability to grow and to use new strategies (learning agility) is a good indicator of whether someone will be a high performer.
  2. You can cultivate learning agility by:
    1. Constantly innovate. Ask yourself “What else?” ; “What more ways can I try?”
    2. Seek out mentors: You are not alone. Become collaborative by asking mentors and colleagues around you for feedback on what you have done and how you could do it differently.
    3. Choose to work with challenging problems. Most people shy away from projects where success is not guaranteed.
    4. Embrace Failure: Acknowledge your failures and capture the lessons you have learnt.