Learn to unlearn: a secret recipe to win amid disruption

Sadly but true, we are all too familiar with the idea of gaining more knowledge by taking in new information and learning more, but let’s take a step back and reflect on whether this is really applicable. Can this new information help us grow and develop as people? Is this information even useful?

Sadly but true, we are all too familiar with the idea of gaining more knowledge by taking in new information and learning more, but let’s take a step back and reflect on whether this is really applicable. Can this new information help us grow and develop as people? Is this information even useful?

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day,” the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said. It’s a view that stands in sharp contrast to our usual beliefs.

The pioneering management theorist Peter Drucker put it another way: “We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop.”

As I stated in my previous article, the best and possibly most effective way for us all to develop, learn and grow — the very first step, in fact — is to unlearn.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of learning. We know that it is about acquiring knowledge or becoming acquainted with or informed about something through observation, reading and hearing about it, or some other method. We also know that every incident in life has a learning experience attached to it.

Now, what does it mean unlearn?

To unlearn means to discard something you’ve learned, but it only happens when you are open to new perspectives on the things you already know. Learning to let go of old and out-of-date rules is one of the skills we all need to develop.

In fact, unlearning is a strategy for coping with rapid change and uncertainty. Unlearning is not simply about forgetting something, sometimes it is about rejecting a previously held belief, or repudiating long-revered theories that are past their sell-by date.

Unlearning and relearning do not mean that one should forget the things learned and learn them again at some point in life. It doesn’t require you to toss out all your accumulated experiences or presume that previous know-how will keep you from success.

Rather, it asks that you stay open to different ways of getting things done.

On the other hand, relearning means learning something again that you have previously forgotten. Relearning happens when you accept a new perspective and appreciate your knowledge from that perspective. Together they will help you to overcome your misconceptions and misunderstandings that were there from the time you learned something new.

Relearning means our knowledge and skills can be improved day by day.

Now that we understand the description of learning, unlearning and relearning, let’s delve further into the process of how to unlearn, as it’s the most challenging task.

Human beings are shaped by experiences and habits, which result in full cups that need to be emptied before we learn the new things. Below are suggestions for building the best unlearning and relearning strategy.

Determine what needs to be unlearned and what needs to replace it: If you are going through a change, ask yourself: what needs to be discarded from the old paradigm? What are you going to replace it with? If, for example, you are starting a new customer service experience, what do you need to keep from the old process? Clarify the requirements of the new one.

Explain the reasons for the change: If people understand the reason they are being asked to make a change, they will be more prepared to drop old habits and methods. Give them solid reasons that will allay their fears.

Offer feedback: Sometimes people are not aware of either what they are doing badly or what is holding them back from doing better. A 360-degree feedback exercise is a tool that can provide great insights into detrimental behaviours.

Provide coaching support: Old habits die hard. Many people can’t change without constant support. Provide coaching that helps people to get rid of old habits and adopt new ones. A coach can skillfully expose the way bad habits are causing problems for an individual, his or her colleagues and the organisation. She can highlight how small changes in behaviour can achieve success. The coach will also hold people accountable and help them keep on track with their unlearning and relearning journey.

Start with yourself: The trouble with many leaders is that they want their people to learn, change and improve, but they don’t want to do any of this themselves. They assume self-improvement is only for subordinates.

All in all, in order to thrive in the future, it is critical that learn how to unlearn. Amid change that is taking place at an unprecedented pace, leaders can no longer rely on “what they know”. Rather, I’d say that effective leaders will be defined by their capacity to unlearn outdated and ineffective ways of doing things and their capability to help their companies and their people to do the same.

Arinya Talerngsri is Chief Capability Officer and Managing Director at SEAC (formerly APMGroup) Southeast Asia’s leading executive, leadership and innovation capability development centre. She can be reached by email at arinya_t@seasiacenter.com or www.linkedin.com/in/arinya-talerngsri-53b81aa

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