Why is it important for managers and leaders to unlearn?

Image by TeroVesalainen from Pixabay

Can you cross your arms? Now try to cross them the other way. Feels uncomfortable doesn’t it. You probably had to concentrate quite hard to do it and go against your instincts to cross them the way you normally do. You had to unlearn what you normally do.

Why is it important for managers and leaders to unlearn? Interesting question. Especially since lots of people think that we need to have learning organisations (Senge, 1990) in healthcare – and even that the NHS should be the biggest learning organisation in the world. I have been thinking about it.

First, I noticed a few things in the question: i) The question doesn’t indicate what unlearning is, and therefore it made me curious about if there is disagreement about its conceptualisation and then if there is disagreement about whether unlearning is important at all, considering on how it is conceptualised. ii) The question is a ‘why’ question – seeking an explanation rather than a ‘what’ or ‘how’ question; and iii) The question is focused on managers and leaders as the unit of analysis – rather than say teams, organisations or even systems or places. That gives me a good place to start – what is unlearning? Where next? Well, a quick search on Google Scholar pops up quite a lot of hits. So, what did I find out?

1. What is unlearning?
There seems to be quite a lot of different views about unlearning, it seems to still be quite a nascent field. The systematic literature review I found (Klammer & Gueldenburg, 2016/2018)* has several definitions and helpfully themes these for me. The review indicates that unlearning can be one or all of the following things: an intentional process of letting go, reframing, and moving away from once-useful mindsets and acquired behaviours, a conscious pattern, a process of actively reviewing, and a voluntary effort to eliminate outdated knowledge and ‘the discarding of obsolete organisational practices, to make room for learning’ (Rushmer & Davies, 2004, p12) and this can take three forms, distinctive mainly by the speed in which they occur. Routine (behavioural level); wiping (accelerated and deliberate) and deep (unpredictable and radical). Adding to that third category, MacDonald (2002) indicates in their literature review that unlearning can be transformative, a form of abandonment and linked to identity, yet receptive to new evidence and a facilitator of organisational change. One article also noted that in the context of patient safety, unlearning must ensure forward accountability and the responsibility to learn lessons so that future people are not harmed by avoidable mistakes (Richmond, 2017). Perhaps this could be summed up by saying unlearning is about challenging the established, and questioning the accepted, unlearning is not about ignoring what is already known but it’s about being brave enough to question it and break down old rules so new ones can be written. It’s about looking at things in the context of today, and tomorrow.

2. Why do we need to unlearn?
Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. The seemingly seminal author, Hedberg (1981) argues that unlearning is generally triggered by problems such as financial shortages, decreasing popular support or public criticism. In addition, it is stated that unlearning is necessary in complex, challenging environments, that can seem chaotic (sounds like healthcare to me). Rushmer and Davies (2004) go on to say that unlearning is needed because of the following:
a) explosive growth in knowledge, and many things we ‘know’ may be incomplete
b) assumption we can learn for ever onto a blank sheet, but our previous knowledge can interfere with this
c) ossification – once embedded into systems and our ways of working and doing can become rigid, inflexible and fossilised.
d) being able to unlearn is a useful skill which may increase flexibility and willingness to change proactively
e) unlearning can surface assumptions or issues that have previously been taken for granted opening us up to deeper thinking and understanding
f) political salience – it may be helpful to publicly acknowledge failings and set out to deliberately unlearn old ways of doing things
g) need to be more critical in thinking about what we have learnt, and what we might unlearn

3. Why don’t we unlearn more?
Based on this tiny review of the literature, unlearning is difficult. We all have habits, fear of the unknown, pre-existing mental models, stereotypes and lack of awareness. Organisations do too – they have their own mental model and dominant logic, their organisational culture with inertial drag. They have systems and processes and policies that pose some rigidity, and which are hard to change, and it is very risky to have a whole organisation unlearn at one, and perhaps importantly it is hard for groups of staff to unlearn – there is a lot to lose. Status, professional norms, identity, certainty (what is currently done, may not always be done) – leading to powerful negative emotions.
Organisational forgetting might be even worse though – when downsizing happens, people leave, routines are disremembered, working relationships dissolve and documentation can be lost. Deliberate unlearning may help to mitigate some of these risks.

4) So, what?
Which brings me back to my original thought on the question and that ‘individual’ unit of analysis. If unlearning is as much about learning organisations, what does ‘unlearning’ mean at an individual level? I’m thinking this may depend on how organisations are conceptualised – as rigid structures, hierarchies and institutions or as groups of networks, people and individuals. It is suggested that organizations unlearn (and forget) through their members (Hedberg, 1981) and that collective unlearning starts first with individual organisational members unlearning (Hislop et al., 2014). Thus, understanding unlearning on an organisational level, requires unlearning on an individual level first (Becker, 2008, 2010).

I reflect now as an individual on my own learning and unlearning. About Toyota Kata this year – and the unlearning video, the Backwards Bicycle and consider my own experiences this year on having to unlearn some previously ‘known’ lean concepts and having to suspend my judgement and opening my mind to a new possibility in improvement practice. I think about how difficult that was to be perceived as ‘an expert’ and yet at the same time being vulnerable and uncertain of how to practice kata. I also remember some of the more harmful transformations I have been involved in, and experienced, many which seemed to happen overnight and how I struggled to adapt my own assumptions and beliefs in light of these new changes and how a more structured approach to help me through that and help me lead my team through that for my organisation might have been of benefit. I also note, that I have historically mostly been rewarded for ‘knowing lots’ and that many organisations reward those who ‘know lots’ however theoretical or tactic, and that in some cases knowledge is power and there can be incentives to compete for knowledge rather than collaborate.

This brings me to wondering about ways to help organisations unlearn by helping members of the organisation to unlearn. By supporting the emotional and professional change in identity needed so that pre-existing assumptions can be surfaced, examined, reused, updated or even disregarded in a safe, accelerated yet still deep way, lessening some of the harm that may occur. Designed deliberately to support unlearning in a way that is set out to be planned, rather than accidental, to mitigate the potential impact of organisational forgetfulness. Intentionally designed to help to support individuals and build the skills, capabilities and agility to thrive in a perpetually changing world, through inter-disciplinary approaches, real-world projects, and intercultural opportunities – and to learn how to unlearn, together. Thus, unlearning is important for managers and leaders in their visible roles, as stewards and culture modifiers within their institutions, for organisations to unlearn, it seems that managers and leaders need to unlearn thereby encouraging more unlearning through their leadership gestures and responses.

Paradoxically, unlearning is important because it allows new learning to take hold.

*Organizational Unlearning and Forgetting – A Systematic Literature Review. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305682100_Organizational_Unlearning_and_Forgetting_-_A_Systematic_Literature_Review [accessed May 20 2019].


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