Most people who participate in a sport hit a certain point where it becomes the painful process of unlearning bad habits; picking apart the work-arounds in technique and the poor form picked up through just trying to become proficient. But, to reach mastery and stay there, it’s not enough to be merely proficient .
Ask an Olympian about undoing bad habits and they can attest how painful and frustrating it can be – old habits die hard, they say. Behind every victory is a lifetime of meticulous unlearning and reworking. Take an equestrian, whose riding practice started with the sole objective to stay on that scrappy pony. Training may have taken place in the back paddock with a sibling, or at the local pony club. But there came a day when to truly compete and win, all those adopted compensations had to be unlearnt to make way for the proper technique to support the advanced manoeuvres. Then, to stay at an elite level it takes constant practice, coaching revision and awareness. The story is the same for martial art practitioners, musicians, master chefs, or virtually anyone committed to a lifetime of mastery.
Digital technologies, data, increasing connectivity, are changing the world around us and creating a context of accelerating change and increasing complexity. To cope, we need to adapt and change, and to do that, we need to learn and learn fast. Becoming a learning organisation has been on the agenda for most professionals ever since Peter Senge pegged it as The Fifth Discipline to unlock organisational transformation.
But key to this process of gaining new knowledge and perspectives is ironically the ability to let go of our old ones. For us to remain the innovation shapeshifters that can grapple with uncertainty, we need to change how we think and constantly reconsider what we know and believe.
This means, that like that equestrian or musician, we need to unlearn the habits, techniques and knowledge that no longer serve us. If we want to grow, adapt and shift, we need to learn how to unlearn .
The hard facts about half-life
According to the World Economic Forum, young people will change careers at least seven times in their lives, and 35% of the skills required today will be different in five years. Their future is no longer about a job for life. What’s more, one study on the future of work by Oxford researchers predict that as much as 47% of all jobs will disappear in the next 25 years. This kind of accelerating change demands a capability that can consistently step out of the existing paradigms and recognise when the status quo is heading the same way as the dodo.
Just short of a century ago, the estimated “half-life of knowledge” for an engineer was 35 years. By the 1960s, it was 10 years. And today? It now only takes five years for half the professional knowledge of an engineer to be superseded by new technologies, approaches, processes and data.
Staying ahead requires the ability to recognise that something is no longer useful and let it go . It is a constant and active process, one that must happen in individuals, but also within teams, organisations, industries and economies. It requires being open and questioning what you believe, as opposed to confirming what you know.
Unlearning is about deliberately and critically thinking your way to a different outcome – even at the expense of what you thought you knew.
The new networked economy
Today’s digital connectedness is transforming the world in which we live and trade – an era of acute change that leaves very little point for comparison in human history. This change is exponential, not linear.
Virtually, every sphere of industry has been redefined, as we are flooded with data, new technologies and connectivity. There are new technologies emerging every week as our existing technologies evolve and become more powerful. The business models of a pre-digital economy are being broken apart. From media and retail through to electricity the dynamics of business are changing.
Where before, a company could maintain a competitive edge by drawing lines around their product and consumers, this new era is blurring the line between product and consumer. Energy markets are grappling with the rise of the prosumer, a customer who both produces and consumes electricity. Facebook is now considered a media company, but it relies on its users to create the content. Where previously it was a one-to-many model, with distinct divides between service provider and consumer, it’s now a case of many-to-many, where the customer is a co-creator and collaborator within the consumer chain.
The unlearning leader
So, how can organisations navigate this shift and ensure their competitive edge stays sharp? It begins with a willingness to change your mind. It is impossible to unlearn without being open to being wrong, or closed off to what is new. As the half-life of knowledge decreases, the likelihood of being wrong increases. A commitment to questioning what you know is challenging for any individual – but even more so for an entire team.
The proliferation of data and technologies offers C-suite executives information they never had access to before. Where before they had to rely on assumptions and heuristics, created through experience and tenure, the cold hard numbers and new data may radically unpack and destroy those assumptions. To leverage insight in a digital economy, sector executives must be willing to change how they make decisions, and trust the new data they are receiving. It requires a certain level of professional humility.
It requires creating a culture that allows for people to be uncertain and to explore new knowledge and then apply it. But to truly capitalise on it and maintain the competitive advantage, it requires that new knowledge is scaled quickly, before it too becomes obsolete (or your competitors catch on). Consequently, in order to thrive, you need to scale and scaling requires a high degree of collective unlearning. It requires a new brand of leadership that is adaptive and inclusive, and willing to venture into uncharted ground.
Author and physicist Richard Feynman would also argue, it requires a leadership team who are skeptical of being right too quickly. He writes, “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.” This means data (and a doubling down on it) is welcome in the effort to test legacy assumptions and hone more accurate outcomes. Those leaders who are willing to disrupt themselves (uhmmm, Netflix) have seen the benefits; those who were not (uhmmm, Nokia) will forever wish they could turn back time.
Albert Einstein was thought to have said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” If we’re to keep up with the pace of evolution, we need to be willing to probe the deeper strangeness and complexity of our world. Unlearning is about unlocking; it’s about punching through the veneer of our conventional approximations to tap open a richer, more authentic experience of learning and interacting with our world. Unlearning is not the easiest path. But then again, easy is not always effective.