In turbulent times like these, it’s critical to hire people who have a growth mindset.   But growth is not always so easy.  Before we can learn something new, we must often “unlearn” what we think we know.   That makes unlearning a business imperative.

To adapt to rapid change, we must learn how to view things from new perspectives, and find ways to regularly challenge our out-dated assumptions.

The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Alvin Toffler

In a brilliant paper on unlearning, professor William Starbuck notes that senior managers, technical experts and organizations are all very resistant to evidence that contradicts their beliefs.

“Top managers’ perceptual errors and self-deceptions are especially potent because senior managers can block actions proposed by their subordinates. Yet, senior managers are also especially prone to perceive events erroneously and to overlook bad news. Although their high statuses often persuade them that they have more expertise than other people, their expertise tends to be out-of-date. They have strong vested interests, and they know they will catch the blame if current policies and actions prove wrong.”

Counteracting the accumulated weight of senior managers, experts and organizational inertia is no easy task, but because the essential requirement for unlearning is doubt, any stimulus that creates doubt can be helpful.  In your own thinking, you may find that adopting these 8 mental practices will be particularly helpful:

  • “It isn’t good enough.”  Dissatisfaction is the most common reason to doubt current methods, but often it is the slowest to bring change.
  • “It’s only an experiment.”   When people see themselves as experimenting, they find it easier to test their assumptions, and listen to feedback – they have less interest in trying to look successful, after all not all experiments are supposed to turn out perfectly.
  • “Surprises should be question marks.”  Both disruptions and pleasant surprises can reveal weakness in current thinking and stimulate improvements … but only if you use the opportunity.
  • “Assume all dissents and warnings have some validity.”  Organizational hierarchy sends good news up the chain of command, but often blocks bad news from rising.   The paper outlines 4 sensible ways to address warnings.
  • “Collaborators who disagree are both right.”  Rather than declaring one viewpoint right, and the other wrong, reconciling apparent contradictions between conflicting viewpoints often reveals that they are not contradictions at all, leading to new insights.
  • “What does a stranger think?”  New people view problems from a different perspective than insiders.  Don’t just assume they are naive.
  • “Work backwards.”  Cause and affect may not be so simple.  If you think A affects B, train yourself to look for evidence where B provides feedback that affects A.
  • “The converse of every proposition is equally valid.”    If you want to break free of your assumptions, try reversing your arguments.  For example: Do superiors impose authority?  Or do subordinates grant it?

Admittedly, I am “often wrong, but never in doubt.”   But that said, I can attest to the profound impact of incorporating just a few of these practices into how we run Staffing Advisors.

Can you imagine what would happen if  your organization adopted all of them?