I planned my January 2020 blog post to reveal what I learned during a year of experimentation and deliberate transformation. This design thinking approach to reconceptualizing my business began well before the pandemic and continued throughout. At the beginning of that journey, I pictured sharing the lessons that I learned.
But the insight I have to share with you today isn’t about LEARNING at all. It is on the role of UNLEARNING and how this hidden requirement for change is key to transformation. In order to change—and change we must—we need to be able to choose an alternative mental model when the ones that we have been using, albeit successfully, no longer serve our purposes. Understanding the role of unlearning is critical for both for individuals and for organizations who need to change.
Our examination of the role of unlearning in change is not new. Unlearning is about moving away from what we already know before learning something new. Adding bits of knowledge or a new skill to your toolkit are straightforward activities. I used to pride myself on deliberately learning something new every year to re-experience being a novice. But adding is not the hard part. What about when transforming requires us to reframe deeply held thoughts and beliefs—mental models? Peter Senge characterized mental models as “deeply held internal images of the way the world works. [These images can empower or] they can limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting” (Senge, 1990, p. 174)
Mental models drive our actions, and these actions, individually and collectively, determine how we thrive.
Take the example of a successful consultant who helped clients customize on-premises software. Her value was based on understanding the software, understanding client needs, and helping the client manage the complex customization process that delivered value over time. But when her organization moved software to the cloud and sold subscriptions, the value proposition was different. What “good” looked like was different. Her work activities were different. The mental model that drove her work no longer served its purpose. She needs to unlearn how to communicate and deliver value as well as mastering new skills to support this change. If she–and her follow consultants–can’t make this transformation, how will the organization thrive?
When we’re in the realm of “transformative” change, we’re talking about changes in mental models as well as building new skills to drive success.
The change management literature suggests three steps to unlearning:
- Recognize that the old mental model isn’t working.
- Find a better mental model.
- Practice and become proficient in the activities that support the new mental model.
The challenge is, of course, that mental models are so ingrained that we are often unaware of them. And if we are aware that the mental model isn’t working, which model will serve us better? And finally, it can be exhausting to always be—or at least feel like—a novice. Our idea of what good looks like needs to change!
As performance improvement practitioners, we need to help ourselves and our clients unlearn as well as learn. We need to embrace our role in helping people unlearn mental models that no longer serve the purpose so that new approaches and skills can be learned.
Alvin Toffler, American writer, futurist and businessman perhaps stated it best when he quoted psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy:
“Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.”
What did you unlearn this year?
- Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Random House Books, 2006.
- Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. New York: Random House, 1970.