In his recent talk, as part of Mind the Product APAC, Barry O’Reilly, author of Unlearn & Lean Enterprise, explained how we can all break the cycle of our learned behaviours to achieve success, even in this time of chaos.
In this post, we provide a detailed overview of his talk, sharing his advice, suggestions and examples so that you can start to unlearn today.
Barry opened his talk by referencing the Coronavirus pandemic – the unique disruption we’re each facing and one that most of us have never experienced before. It’s a disruption that impacts the way we work and whether the businesses we work for will survive.
He described how we all, so often, become trapped in a very linear mindset, “We believe that the things that made us successful in the past will be the thing that make us successful in the future,” he says. But this is not how change happens, so to move through this unique crisis and be successful in our work, we must begin to unlearn the behaviours that will inevitably hold us back.
Learning to Unlearn
Unlearning is a system, he explains. It’s a system whereby you recognise when you need to move away from mindsets and acquired behaviours that were once useful, but that are now limiting your results.
“It’s not forgetting or discarding your knowledge. It’s actually the conscious act of letting go of outdated information so new information can come in to inform your decision-making and action.”
Just as you iterate the features of your products to ensure they stay relevant, you must continually adapt your human behaviour as the world around you changes.
When to Begin
The signs you need to Unlearn are, ultimately, when your existing behaviours and thinking hold you back. These might include:
- Failing to meet the expectations you’ve set for yourself
- Failing to achieve the outcomes you’re aiming for
- Avoiding situations or struggling through situations
- Exhausting all options with no real results
If these sound familiar, it can seem daunting to know where to begin unlearning the behaviours giving you these results. The answer, Barry says, is to start small.
Of course, there might be multiple levels, on which, you need to challenge your thinking, especially during challenging times – ones that affect parts of your life, your teams, your colleagues and perhaps even the organisation you work for. However, says Barry: “It’s best that you start to start small, focus on yourself.”
What it Takes to Unlearn
He also explains that there are certain characteristics that will support your ability to Unlearn, the first being curiosity. As inspiration, he shares an example of one of his “favourite learners”, an executive at HSBC.
At the start of each year, he tells us, this executive would give all new graduates the problems he was currently working on, to see how they might try to solve them. “By seeing the new techniques and tools they would use,” says Barry, “he’d challenge his existing mental models of the world and his thinking.”
The second characteristic, is the ability to take ownership.
When you fail to get the results you want, Barry asks, what’s your natural reaction? “Do you blame someone else, do you blame the other team, or do you own the results and think about what you can do differently to impact the outcome?” People who are great “unlearners”, he explains, know how to own the results.
Thirdly, he says that unlearning requires commitment. “You’re going to have to do things that you’re not good at, you’re going to have to try things that you suck at. And that means you’re going to have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, getting outside your comfort zone.”
He explains that we can all challenge our thinking by trying new behaviours and taking small steps to learn what works and what doesn’t. This, he says, as he’s covered in his book UnLearn, is all about starting small and learning fast. “It’s what helps us to make progress, especially in highly uncertain circumstances like we are in today.”
Be Clear on Your Direction
When working through the process of unlearning, Barry advises that clarity on direction is key, but it’s something people don’t always have.
For example, he explains, most people consider that success for their organisation is simply “making money”, but this is a result, not a strategy. It’s focused on easy-to-measure indicators rather than the things that really matter – as the late Jack Welch, former CEO of GE once said, these are ”your employees, your customers, and your product”.
In the same way, when Barry asks people what their organisation’s mission statement is, he’s usually met with fairly default offerings and generic platitudes that fail to offer any differentiation. “When people don’t understand what success is for their organisation, they become trapped in siloed thinking and create conflicting goals,” he says.
He acknowledges the challenge of trying to achieve something different, something that offers more than the default mission statement and strives for something better. This, he explains, is why clarity of direction is so important.
“How we define success for ourselves, for our business, signals our intent. It attracts what talent wants to work with us and the customers who want to collaborate with us,” he says.
Live Your Values
Next, Barry turns his focus to values – those that guide the behaviours we adopt to achieve the outcomes we aim for. He questions how we can live our values and be our very best, even at the most challenging times, like now, during the Coronavirus pandemic.
“When we’re clear on what outcomes we’re aiming for we can do amazing things,” he says. When we’re not, we end up in chaos that’s not guided by outcome or inferred by values.
Be Ready to Take Ownership
With clarity on the intent and values of your organisation, you can be in control to take action towards it. “That’s how you create high performance and low-latency decision making,” says Barry. But, he continues, you have to be ready to own what you’re doing.
He shares an example featuring Zoom, attributing much of our ability to collaborate during the chaotic, Coronavirus lockdown to this one organisation.
He acknowledges the organisation’s incredible success, resulting from its ability to deliver during the Coronaviruspandemic. However, it’s no secret that it has had many challenges. In a public statement, Zoom’s Founder and CEO, Eric S. Yuan addressed these issues head-on, apologising for falling short of the community’s expectation on issues such as privacy, and detailing, not only the action it has taken to resolve them, but also the action it plans to take going forward.
This, says Barry, is a good example of “owning your problems, owning your results and taking corrective actions to try and live up to your values.”
Next, comes empowerment.
Empowerment is something we don’t always feel in our roles but, as he explains, it can grow organically when there’s clarity. Clarity, he says, creates context which then allows people to take control of decisions.
He gives the example of John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile in the US.
John joined the company in 2012, and instead of sitting in meetings and presentations from across the organisation, he had a phone line installed in his office. “He listened to customer complaints for four hours a day for the first month, so that he could learn and unlearn some of the challenges customers were facing,” says Barry. “And he learned amazing things.”
John discovered what customers did not understand about their data plans, the cost of their plans, and their contracts. He used that information to understand the way T-Mobile’s product and service offering worked, and also to relearn to get the breakthroughs that he needed. Three months later T-Mobile launched Un-carrier.
This says Barry, “took away all the complexity that people were experiencing with pricing. It obliterated the market. They became huge.”
The company continued this process of unlearning. “John didn’t use empowerment just for himself,” says Barry. “He’s now pushing it down in the organisation. So whenever you call T-Mobile now you go straight to a team of experts. There are no bots, there’s no bouncing around, or no BS as they say, and these people are empowered. They own the problem of serving customers to the best of their ability. They own the outcomes.”
What’s more, when people contact the T-Mobile team, they get results because the team doesn’t have to ask for authority. “These teams are given problems to solve, outcomes that they’re responsible for, and they’re allowed to take the actions to drive the results they’re aiming for.”
Unlearning in Action, Today
But this is nothing new, says Barry. It’s simply about letting go of existing mindsets, and letting go of how we think control needs to operate within organisations. Today, he says, there are some good examples of people and companies doing just that.
“Many countries are facing a lot of challenges now with the Coronavirus,” he said, “and some of them have actually learned from previous lessons.” Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong, all experienced SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012, Barry tells us. As a result, they built systems that could rapidly respond in the face of potential, future pandemics. “They’ve already learned from their experience while, in many other regions of the world, we’re still struggling to catch up”. Barry questions, what could we achieve if we all did this too – if we took stock of what’s happening right now, what might we learn and unlearn to set us up for success in the future?
Take Action Today
Barry asks us all to think about how we could think big, but start small, and begin to unlearn today, even amidst the Coronavirus pandemic – perhaps even more so because of it.
We can all start today, he says:
- Take some action – small steps every day
- Get your team together and get aligned on your game plan
- Journal – make note of the steps you’re taking to see what works and doesn’t
“You’ve not got one shot, you’ve got many,” Barry says. “Capture what worked, remember what didn’t, and, you know, feed it forward to the next spin. You never know where you might end up.”
Discover More and Share your Experience
We know so many of you are big fans of Barry and we’d love to know what small steps you’ve taken already to unlearn. Share your thoughts in the comments below and keep the conversation going. You can also stay up-to-date with Barry’s work, including his upcoming talk and workshop dates at his website, barryoreilly.com.
Discover what other product people and organisations are doing during the disruption of COVID-19:
- An Agile Project to Enable Social Distancing: a Case Study by Katarzyna Malecka
- Creating Solutions for COVID-19 Frontliners by Dr Satyavati Kharde and Poulomi Thakurdesai
- Shifting Focus and Acknowledging Unknowns Kara Chiles on the products behind the largest local newspaper company in the US