Why We Need To Learn To Unlearn

Why do we persist in presenting plans that offer the illusion of certainty but are bound to be disrupted?

Unlearning is the process of letting go, reframing, and moving away from once-useful mindsets and acquired behaviours that were effective in the past, but now limit success.

The Cycle of Unlearning isn’t a once-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.

Barry O’Reilly

I’ve had a couple of conversations this week with people about forming internal plans or business pitches. One was with a company who are embarking on a ‘big transformation project’. (As an aside, why are transformation programmes always ‘big’? They are never discreet, small, focused or time-boxed. I reckon that’s part of the problem).

The plan on the face of it sounded great – a crystal clear plan of getting from A to B to C. Any board would lap it up and press go. Except we all know that life isn’t like that at all.

Things rarely, if ever, work out as planned.

So why do we persist in presenting plans that offer the illusion of certainty but are bound to get disrupted?

It reminds me of those Plans v Reality memes:

The first lesson to be drawn from 2020-21, and undoubtedly the biggest lesson, is that the future is entirely unpredictable, whatever your plan says. As Jason Fried has said – a plan is just a guess that you wrote down. “Financial plan? It’s a financial guess. Strategic planning? Call it with it really is: a strategic guess. 5 year plan? You mean 5 year guess.”

I imagine we present plans in a fail-safe way as fundamentally we are optimistic and we all want to believe the future is predictable, despite the evidence to the contrary. And of course we want people to think we are competent: why would someone buy-in to a plan that predicts we are going to mess up at some point?

But we will mess up. I’m working on a proposal with a group of colleagues at the moment that has a high failure probability, or at least a high probability that things won’t work out as expected. We’ve initially time boxed it to just six months and resisted any pressure to imagine what it looks like twelve months from now. Why? Because when you’re trying something new involving multiple moving parts, you’re better to get a start on something and begin learning rather than spending months trying to predict the unpredictable or try to avoid the unavoidable. If we all focused on becoming endlessly adaptable rather than pretending to be fortune tellers or soothsayers, we’d build much more resilient workplaces.

None of this answers the why. Why are executives and management teams hooked on receiving plans that offer up what is likely to be an overly optimistic , if not unreal, vision?

I think a lot of this is rooted in our obsession with heroic leadership and leaderism. We have a disconnect before us:

This can only be bridged by those in power challenging their mental models of the world, and allowing more people to try new things out without requiring them to produce cast iron guarantees of success.

As Neil Tamplin has written , in today’s world of work people want to be accountable for their own actions and our leaders can’t possibly know the fullness of every decision they make. In our increasingly uncertain operating environments, this model is setting ourselves up to fail because we choose to avoid vulnerability and uncertainty in favour of comfort. Empowering people throughout a company doesn’t mean abolishing leadership, but democratising it. Anyone can and should be able to lead

I’ve picked up a lot of useful insights from the work of Barry O’Reilly and his book, Unlearn.

Unlearning is the process of letting go, reframing, and moving away from once-useful mindsets and acquired behaviours that were effective in the past, but now limit success. To succeed in this rapidly changing world, we need a system to recognise when our existing behaviour is working (so we continue with it), and when it’s not (so we unlearn).

The design principles we try to follow as a business try to promote unlearning , abandoning , and ceaseless questioning. Just having principles doesn’t change behaviours, but it does at least create a visible template of what we are striving for.

Why We All Need To Learn To Unlearn

We often talk about losing organisational knowledge and skills in a purely negative sense. ‘There are too many people leaving the business, we are losing too much experience’. But 21st century business is not just about keeping existing information, knowledge and behaviours – it’s about unlearning the habits and beliefs that hold us back, and replacing them with habits and beliefs that help us to prepare for the future.

None of this is to say that we don’t need business plans , policy or forecasts, but that they should now be put together on the basis that we will fail at some point and we’ll need to adapt them again and again. Learning, unlearning and relearning as go.

Ending Our Obsession With Leadership

Organisations need to completely rethink what it means to lead. It’s not about one person or even those residing at the top anymore. In today’s world, everyone has to adopt a leadership mindset. We have to think of ourselves as members of a leadership community  — Patty McCord, former chief talent officer, Netflix

Leadership worship – the act of mythologizing those near the top of organisations – is holding us back now more than ever.

When we look to others to make decisions, set the rules or uphold the culture we actively disempower ourselves, levying a huge inefficiency tax upon our organisations.

How much inefficiency? It could be 75% or higher.


According to a recent report –  the vast majority of employees wish their boss or manager would give them more responsibility, with 83%  wishing ‘leaders’ would ask for their opinion or input more often.

Far from shirking, employees are actually crying out to make more of a contribution at work.

Those kind of numbers suggest enormous amounts of talent, ideas and innovation are being squandered – all in the name of supporting a hierarchical approach to leadership by the few, rather than the many.

It’s not as if those leaders appear to have all the answers anyway. According to the World Economic Forum  86% of people agree that ‘we have a leadership crisis in the world today’ with an alarmingly weak correspondence between power and competency.

Additionally, a series of reports from MIT argues that current leaders lack the mindset needed to bring about the strategic and cultural changes required to lead in the new digital economy.

So you have two things going on:

You don’t have to be an expert in innovation to see that’s a busted model.

But is it our own obsession with leadership that is actually supporting this dysfunction?

As Neil Tamplin has written , in today’s world of work people want to be accountable for their own actions and our leaders can’t possibly know the fullness of every decision they make. In our increasingly uncertain operating environments, this model is setting ourselves up to fail because we choose to avoid vulnerability and uncertainty in favour of comfort.


Fear of Failure

So what’s stopping us? One reason organisations might not want to include their employees in their decision-making involves our focus on outcomes and a fear of failure.

The more people involved in decisions means the greater the risk of screwing things up – or so the conventional thinking goes. Mark Robinson has argued though that it’s often better to have poor outcomes with a great decision-making process than it is to have good outcomes with a poor decision-making process. His reasoning is that “you need a culture where people aren’t to blame for decisions. What your culture should be about is learning from bad decisions.”

Perhaps we need to lose the language of leadership altogether.

A Google search for leadership traits reveals a tiresome focus on visioning, strategizing and feedback loops – the kind of management bullshit we should have left back in the 1990s.

The real traits that matter such as empathy or self awareness, are key attributes for all human beings , not just for those of us who have a couple of line reports.

You will be hard-pressed nowadays to find a business that does not have some sort of a mentorship or development programme geared towards the leaders of tomorrow or emerging or aspiring leaders.

Hardly any of those self-same businesses will have programmes aimed at developing the ideas of tomorrow or creating the organisation of tomorrow.

It’s all about leaders. 

Arguably we are prioritising the perpetuation of existing systems and structures over meaningful change. Unless we address the root of the system, unless we really address how organisations make decisions and engage people, then we are not changing anything materially.

The new world of work requires us to become less fixated on the leader and more focused on leveraging the community at every level of our organisations.

Breeding the idea of the leader as superhero is getting us nowhere fast.

As we begin a new year the most radical thing you could do is rip up your plans for leadership development – and concentrate instead on how you can democratise innovation for the 80% rather than the 20%.


Who Really Wins From Digital Transformation?

The birth of the change management movement began in the 1960s and 70s – when big consultancy began to see a vast new market – convincing organisations of the benefits of ‘transformation’.

Alongside this came the development of a distinctive, pseudo-scientific language of change which the consultants needed to pitch themselves to new clients.

It aimed to take advantage of a sort of corporate narcissism – hoping that senior executives and boards would swoon at the chance to ‘made over’ by slick looking outsiders.

They certainly did swoon, in fact they fell head over heels. As Jacob Dutton writes in a challenging piece – helping companies ‘do transformation’ is now very big business.

“The total size of the global transformation market is expected to grow from $445.4bn in 2017 to $2,279.4bn by 2025. The consulting component of a transformation programme alone is worth $44bn. As a result, the likes of PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY have all reacted and developed their transformation capabilities.”

The size of this market , and the riches on offer, arguably drive three key behaviours:

  • A focus on agile solutions rather than contemplative problem definition.
  • A subsequent focus on low hanging fruit – the easier problem to solve is often through tech, rather than the more complex wicked problems 
  • A focus on benefits realisation rather than value production – which often puts the emphasis squarely on efficiency.  Humans are expensive right?

Which then leads to:  The rush towards technological transformation – as if cheap tech is the only solution.

But what are we losing from our organisations, from our community, when we approach transformation as purely a means to be quicker, slicker and more convenient?

NI Housing - Paul Taylor (2)

We could be seeing the digitsiation of the most important thing your organisation has – the relationship with your customer.

As Gerry McGovern has written, looking at technology as cost minimization results in the hollowing out of organizations into technological shells, in which staff spend far more time interacting with numbers, code, and content than they do with their customers.

These avoidance tactics presume the customer is a cost on your time rather than an opportunity. In our own work we have learned that our customers and communities have many skills, often untapped and completely underutilized by us and others like us.

This change evangelism and the hollowing out of relationships can make us embark on the worst kind of technological solutionism – that risks ignoring the skills, assets and sheer talent that exists in our communities.

Starting With a Clean Slate

At Bromford we’ve done a lot of work on the standardisation of our processes and service offerings. It’s not sexy, but some of the most innovative companies operate very standard operating models. It allows them move exponentially quicker.

Focusing purely on the relationship your customer wants, and the simpler processes that support it,  helps resist the need to transform.

Jacob Dutton proposes that big companies abandon the idea of transformation programmes altogether and suggests some tips for kicking the habit. I agree and would also add:

  • Let’s have more reflection and contemplation rather than lots of management activity.
  • Let’s devolve resources and influence to those closest to the problem rather than outsource them.
  • Let’s change little and often through small-scale experimentation.
  • Let’s not roll anything out until we have evidence that it actually works.

As Neil Tamplin has said perhaps our organisations need to be more amenable to gentle iterative change rather than lurching forward intermittently to catch up?

Being a human organisation means resisting someone else’s idea of best practice.

Who is really winning from transformation?

  • Is it the customer who now has a digital portal and a chatbot with a pre-determined series of options between them and the person they really need to deal with?
  • Is it the organisation who were promised a bright new future but find they have the same fundamental problems they always had?
  • Is it the employee who was told they shouldn’t resist change and that their job would be made easier, but found that their job would eliminated altogether?

The global transformation market will be worth $2,279.4bn by 2025.

Someone is winning and it’s not necessarily going to be you or your customer.

View at Medium.com


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