“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” – Alvin Toffler, Futurist
During times of change people at all levels of an organization desperately need new and expanded skills. But for many, the mind is already full, with little or no free space within which to invite additional knowledge. What’s required is not more, but actually less. What’s required is a focus on unlearning.
Unlearning involves releasing what one has known, how one has performed, and practices that have worked in the past to make room for new learning and the new possibilities it can bring. It’s about shedding outdated mental models that no longer serve the individual or the organization. It’s about consciously exorcising old strategies, skills, approaches, tools, rules and procedures so that the mind is ready to take in and act upon what’s relevant today.
While unlearning seems like it should be a welcome and liberating task, it’s a significant challenge for many individuals. First, what we “know” is deeply embedded beyond our conscious minds and is routinely translated to tacit knowledge and habits – both of which can be hard to recognize and even harder to overcome. Second, unlearning can be threatening. It challenges our sense of competence. It forces us to let go of an expert mindset, which puts our contributions and even our identities into question. And if learning makes a person vulnerable, unlearning magnifies that sense of discomfort.
Yet, despite the challenges, unlearning offers tremendous benefits. Most obviously, it frees up mental space and attention, allowing individuals to update their knowledge and evolve their performance to meet current needs. It creates new potential and new possibilities. It enhances neuroplasticity, helping the brain to continue to grow and change regardless of age.
Unlearning builds greater adaptability and flexibility. It’s the key to innovation, as old ways rarely produce new results. And, with the introduction of countless exciting new jobs each year (and the routine obsolescence of outdated roles), unlearning is becoming increasingly vital to career survival and organizational success.
Helping individuals embrace unlearning as a prerequisite for new insights, skills and results require a concerted effort throughout the organization, with support from executives, line leaders and L&D professionals alike.
Building a culture that supports unlearning begins at the top. Senior executives must challenge themselves to revisit and streamline values, mission and strategy. Rather than adding to these important framing tools, they must rationalize and simplify what exists. They must audit, and edit, policies. Before introducing new initiatives, they must identify the old initiatives that will be eliminated.
And while executive support is essential, what line leaders do (or don’t do) may have the greatest impact on an employee’s willingness and ability to unlearn. Leaders need to:
- Grant permission and set expectations around challenging what people do and how they do it.
- Engage in ongoing dialogue with provocative questions that let others know that “how we’ve always done it” is not sacred and should be challenged.
- Inspire curiosity, experimentation and risk-taking while being careful to recognize effort versus punishing failure.
- Forge fresh mental models by encouraging people to embrace and construct innovative frameworks versus simply forcing new ideas into an old mold.
Finally, L&D professionals can also contribute to a culture that embraces and leverages unlearning. Simply inviting people to consider what’s old and needs to leave to make room for the new can free up mental space and energy for new learning. And in these times of constant change, we must help everyone hold lightly what they know – anticipating that it will likely need to be unlearned at some point.