Learn to Unlearn


To drive transformation, organisations and leaders must learn to unlearn mindsets and behaviours that limit their success.

Drive Digital Transformation by Learning to Unlearn

Leading transformation is hard. That is why in a recent webinar with ETM's Stephen Dowling, we explored how the skill of unlearning can allow leaders to truly become change ready.

The following blog explores how leaders can "Learn to Unlearn".

What is unlearning?

“ 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 our success.
It is not forgetting, removing, or discarding knowledge or experience; it is the conscious act of letting go of outdated information, and actively engaging in taking in new information to inform effective decision making and action.”
- Barry O’ Reilly

How knowledge changes.

It is easy to fall into the trap of trusting our learned knowledge. However, as the world changes, so too does our understanding of it. For our knowledge to reflect the world we live in, we must always be adapting, learning and unlearning.

“Knowledge grows, and simultaneously it becomes obsolete as reality changes... Understanding involves both learning new knowledge and discarding obsolete and misleading knowledge. ”
- Bo Hedberg | How Organisations Learn & Unlearn - Vol 1: Oxford University Press (1981)

If leaders want to be able to adapt, they need to be able to learn new things and unlearn information that ties them down. In the medical field, doctors can expect to unlearn and relearn most of their knowledge over the course of their careers. The same unlearning needs to occur across all organisations.

Why is unlearning so hard?



Why unlearning is difficult - word cloud


Many factors prevent people from unlearning. Fear, organisational culture, time requirements and stubbornness are among the most common. However, fundamentally humans are wired to be efficient. The latest research in neuroscience shows that humans run on ‘autopilot’ most of the time.  Unlearning is not something that is automatic, it goes against our human instincts.


How do we unlearn?

So how do we unlearn? Unlearning is not automatic, so we need a system to help us to unlearn on a much more conscious and deliberate basis.



The Unlearning Cycle


The Unlearning Cycle

Barry O'Reilly 2020. All Rights Reserved ©

1. Unlearn:

We have to recognise when and what we need to unlearn.
Ask yourself, where are you not achieving your expectations? Where are you not achieving the outcomes that you want? Be open, curious, and willing to let go of behaviours and knowledge that are getting between you and your expectations.

2. Relearn:

What is the new way of doing things? Experiment with your behaviours. Start small and think big.

3. Breakthrough:

Have your changes in behaviour moved you closer to your expectations? If it has, amplify the behaviour. If it has not, try something new.

Unlearning should start with individuals, it can then propagate out to the rest of your organisation.

Why is unlearning so important?



© 2020, ETM Consultancy and Training Pty Ltd

The exponential growth and change in digital technology will fundamentally change most organisations. To stay up to date, organisations and leaders need to be able to adapt to change. Leaders and organisations are often stuck in the management principles and processes of the past and are leading a largely disengaged workforce. To overcome these challenges organisations and leaders need to be able to unlearn the behaviours that are getting between them and transforming themselves and their organisation.
This can be overwhelming for organisations and leaders. So where do you start?



A mindset for unlearning.



Barry O'Reilly 2020. All Rights Reserved ©

How can changing your behaviour help you to unlearn? Your behaviour will change your perspective on situations. Over time this will cause your mindset to change. Your mindset can then reinforce your changed behaviour allowing you to unlearn. In simple terms, "fake it 'till you make it".



Think like a scientist

1. Hypothesis:
Identify a small new behaviour or action that you can perform to help you meet your expectations. How do you think it will affect your outcomes? Don’t be afraid to try something different.

2. Perform the behaviour:
Consciously start performing the behaviour.

3. Reflect:
Did the behaviour help you to achieve what you wanted to achieve? If so, amplify the behaviour. If not, try a different behaviour.  
Remember to start small and build up the scale of these behaviours slowly. This will allow you to practice the process.

Learn more

To learn more about Unlearning, check out our webinar with Unlearning expert, Stephen Dowling, founder of ETM.
View webinar

At Symphony3 we help our clients to overcome change and deliver simple connected customer experiences.

If you found this blog useful and would like to learn more about what we do, follow the button below.
About Symphony3





Watch full webinar video

A conversation with Stephen Dowling, Founder of ETM.


Webinar Title: Learning to unlearn: A framework for working and thinking in today's uncertain world
Panel: Stephen Dowling in conversation with Fergal Coleman
Date and Time: 12pm - 1pm, 17th June 2020
Cost: Free

About Stephen Dowling
Stephen Dowling, is the principal of ETM. Stephen is one of Australia’s leading educators in the Agile and Lean project delivery space.
He has worked with organisations including the major Australian banks, the world’s leading Pharmaceutical firms as well as hundreds of small and medium-sized businesses.