Forget about learning - those who are future-ready are those who can UNlearn

Beware staff who say, "But we don't do it that way."

By Dr Tim London, senior lecturer at UCT’s Graduate School of Business.

Opportunities for learning abound in both formal and informal settings. In-house trainings, mentorship programmes, hallway conversations and exchanges during meetings are all chances to learn from colleagues every day. Formal options include university programmes or courses that lead to an award, or executive education-type trainings that can upskill participants.

While the quality of the content and delivery of these different learning opportunities obviously matters, an often overlooked factor that will fundamentally determine how likely learning is to happen is the ability of people to UNlearn. People who can unlearn will be the ones who generally create the best insights and innovations in your organisation. The problem is that our current leaders, organisations and systems tend to actually drive this capacity out of people.

First, it’s important to make it clear that this article is not trying to say that previous experience is “bad”; this baggage that we all carry with us only becomes harmful when a person assumes that the present circumstances will continue or that the results they are currently getting are actually the best results or processes possible. If you want to see examples of people unwilling to even question whether changes can be made, just listen for statements like this:

  • “Yeah, but we don’t do it that way here.”
  • “That will never work.” (often offered with no real justification for why the new idea is fatally flawed)
  • “Look, I’ve been doing this for [X number] of years and…”
  • “But we’re already set up to do it another way.”
  • “That’s just a fad.”
  • “I know a lot of data shows a bad trendline, but I’m guessing this is just a cycle.”

When you hear that, you know that the person speaking it is likely going to struggle with learning new things because they’re overly attached to ideas and practices they’re already familiar with from their experience.

Compounding the difficulty in addressing this lack of development (and I can’t stress enough how much this mindset must be addressed) is that your organisational processes have likely rewarded these same people in many ways over the years by keeping them employed, promoting them, recognising them as “top performers” in some way, or other incentives that will have told them that what they’re currently doing is great.

In fact, these types of institutional structures (rules, regulations, processes, etc.) can be some of the most important issues to interrogate if you want to clearly demonstrate the importance of unlearning in your organisation.

This is often brought to the fore when there are well-meaning attempts by leaders to encourage people to try new things or simply to question the status quo, while they do little to nothing to change what gets supported and rewarded for those same people. In short, leaders then force their team to make a choice: do what the boss is asking or do the things that get you your bonus, promotion, or recognition.

Putting employees in the position of having to choose between what is good for them versus what is good for the company creates a toxic work environment. In this particular case of learning and unlearning, it does little to actually encourage people to challenge existing norms or practices. Leaders who want to incentivise unlearning and learning in their organisation need to make this clear, then lay out a clear plan to change any structural aspects that might dissuade their people from actually taking the risk of trying new things.

In addition to building organisational structures that encourage and reward ongoing learning and unlearning, it is also essential that you also look for people to join the organisation who already embrace that type of thinking. You can always work to drag people into that culture, but it is far more efficient and effective to simply hire people who already fit into that culture.

Identifying and attracting people willing to readily challenge convention and innovate requires rethinking many hiring tropes such as looking for degrees earned, outcomes measures from previous posts, or large numbers of years of experience. While those might be useful, they don’t tell you much about how dynamic a person is and how often they’ve had to stop doing things one way to take on new work, clients, or approaches.

It must also be noted that those who are best suited to dynamically adapt to new styles, situations, and approaches are also likely to be poorly supported by older models of training and education. This puts real pressures on organisational leaders to ensure that the existing training and development people and systems can keep pace.

It also puts pressure on the higher education system that has often been called upon to help develop not just entry-level workers, but also to provide ongoing training through postgraduate study and executive education courses. As I noted in my article last month: given the need for adaptable training, both in content and delivery formats, there needs to be a much tighter, ongoing connection between organisational leaders and education providers to ensure that training, education, and development programmes are as impactful and relevant as possible.

Read more: "Don't hope for the talent you want - build it!"

The leaders who can create an environment that both encourages and supports the rapid learning of new thinking and the capacity to unlearn suddenly antiquated approaches will find their organisations well placed to attract the best talent and maintain a competitive advantage into the future.