Great Leaders Know When to Unlearn the Past

BY James Gadsby Peet ON NOVEMBER 20, 2018

Good leaders know they need to continuously learn. But great leaders know when to unlearn the past to succeed in the future.Barry O’Reilly, Founder and CEO of ExecCap and Co-Author of Lean Enterprise

This month’s Mind the Product Leadership meetup in London was treated to a talk by business advisor and entrepreneur Barry O’Reilly. Here’s what we learned about unlearning the past from a lively discussion with Barry, Anna Kuriakose (Chief Product Officer at TotallyMoney), Reshma Shaikh (VP of Strategy and Operations for Springer Nature), and Glenn Morgan (Head of Digital at International Airlines Group).

The Romans had the Right Idea

Whenever the Romans encountered a culture that had a better version of one of their capabilities, they assimilated it. They gave up their own practices when they found better ones… a good model for successful organisations and practitioners to follow.

Genuine Understanding Recognises What Information is Obsolete

Many companies have tried to turn themselves into “learning organisations”. Most think this means driving their employees continually to improve their understanding in areas of practice. Many miss the capability to drop ideas which are no longer valid.

Disruption Applies to People, not Organisations

If your company is holding on to what made you successful in the past, then you will struggle with any significant shift in context. Any change needs to happen within the leadership team in order to be adopted by the rest of the organisation. The leadership team needs to shift their mental models and ‘unlearn’ what they have seen work in the past in order for everyone to work in a new way.

Create a Cycle of Unlearning

While it’s difficult to learn new things, this is not the most limiting factor holding back higher performance. People get stuck trying to unlearn the behaviour that has previously made them successful. If you’re stuck trying to solve a problem but not finding a solution, then maybe you need to look at the foundations on which you’re trying to build a solution.

Barry’s top tips for starting this cycle of unlearning:

  1. Think big, but start small – little behaviour experiments are easier to start but can end up having a big impact for you, both personally and across your organisation.
  2. Courage over comfort – it requires a lot of humility to be brave and look at yourself to see if your world view could be the issue, but it is the only approach that yields results.
  3. Scale safely – start small so you can recover from mistakes in a way that instills and develops psychological safety in your team. It will mean that long-term change is possible across large numbers of people.

Humility is Hard for Organisations to Embrace

There’s no corporate language for organisational humility. Products have to be bold and proven solutions to problems, rather than ideas which are being developed and could fail. Mistakes can often be completely out of your control, but you still need to take responsibility for them. This can lead to defensiveness, rather than an investigation of could be done better. Organisations that can embrace and investigate their failures will find it easier to identify and address their shortcomings ahead of their competitors.

Preconceived Ideas are the Hardest to Shift, but Your Customers can Help

We all have concepts that we hold dear, and they’re the ones that need the most work to be unlearned. If you can test your assumptions by putting your ideas in front your customers at pace and regularly, you will quickly identify which ones need to be retired.

Graduates Have Plenty to Unlearn too

Schools haven’t changed the way they approach education in hundreds of years. Critical thinking and the ability to flex your approach are not taught as standard, but are skills picked up through experience. Don’t be afraid to tell your new star hire that their bright new ideas might need to be rethought.

Don’t Make big Changes, try Tiny Tweaks

We try to avoid big, risky releases when we build products. We need the same approach when changing behaviours – small tweaks to how you operate are much easier to recover from if they go wrong, rather than big, noisy, shifts.

Let People Come to Their own Conclusions

Ask people to paint a picture of what they think the solution to a problem is using their own preconceptions, then you can help them to see the gaps in their argument. From here, you can more easily ask them to iterate on a new approach.

Shock the System, and Start With a Clean Slate

If your organisation has tried to change, but isn’t seeing results, you might need to employ radical tactics. If your leadership understands the scale of the problem they face, they will stop believing they’re too safe to be disrupted. Start by shocking people, by showing them the people looking to take their business over. You’re then likely to have some difficult and depressing conversations – but exciting ideas are the other side of this.

Measures of Success Change as Companies Grow

When someone starts a company, it’s all about how much output they can create from their limited resource. As businesses scale, these same founders need to unlearn this approach and focus on how much impact they can generate. It’s not about their own execution any more, it’s about the orchestration of others to achieve an impact. Some suggest you throw out every single leadership process each time you double in size.

If People Feel out of Control, They Never Feel Safe

Working in organisations with close founder relationships can be very difficult. When founders realise their organisations have changed, they no longer feel in control of something they care deeply about. If you want them to unlearn how to approach this, you must give them the information they need in order to see what the new world could look like.

If You’re Making Changes, Prepare for the Worst

A lot of successful change comes after a crisis. If you are looking at how to set up a new type of working, then keep an eye out for opportunities which can help drive your approach. If you can be the person who comes to a group of leaders with options for a way forward, then you’ll be in a strong position to drive change.


For more from Barry about how high-performance organisations innovate at scale, watch his closing keynote from MTPCon London 2017. Curious to Unlearn more? Check out Barry’s new book, Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results

James Gadsby Peet

About

James Gadsby Peet

I've been in the digital industry for over 10 years and have worked across small and large charities, as well as my own freelance projects. I am now Director of Digital at the sector leading creative agency William Joseph. Having been at Cancer Research UK for the last four years, I have been able to work on high volume, high profile campaigns such as Race for Life, Dryathlon and the much-quoted #nomakeupselfie. In that time I helped drive forward the charity’s digital product and marketing capabilities to be some of the most respected and successful in the sector. I'm always excited to work with other organisations, share expertise and swap cat gifs. Give me a shout!

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