Learning Organizations

The Problem with Learning Is Unlearning

A stereotype of older people is that they get set in their ways, and even if something better comes along, they would rather stick with what they know. This attitude can unconsciously work its way into otherwise good employees too. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Mark Bonchek discusses the challenge of “unlearning” for the sake of improvement.

The Stubborn Problem

He begins by explaining that unlearning is different from forgetting; after all, people forget stuff all the time, and nobody is praising the business value of it. Unlearning is more dramatic, in that a person who unlearns is consciously choosing to set aside his or her current work model in order to take on a new one. The benefits of unlearning can be equally dramatic. For instance, it is tragically not uncommon for older executives to actively dismiss reliable, actionable data in favor of an opposing strategy that agrees with their gut—and then that strategy fails. A little unlearning would likely have helped.

There are three steps to effective unlearning:

  1. Recognize the old model is no longer relevant or effective.
  2. Find or create a new, more applicable model.
  3. Ingrain the new mental habits.

That third part is the hard one, so Bonchek says this about it:

This process is no different from creating a new behavioral habit, like your diet or golf swing. The tendency will be to fall back into the old way of thinking and therefore the old way of doing. It’s useful to create triggers that alert you to which model you are working from. For example, when you are talking about your customers, catch yourself when you call them “consumers” — this corresponds to a transactional mindset. Find a word that reflects a more collaborative relationship. The shift in language helps to reinforce the shift in mindset.

So basically, you can turn the new model of thinking into a habit the same way you would develop any other habit—by consciously forcing yourself to do it. You can view the original article here: https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-the-problem-with-learning-is-unlearning

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