I had one of those rare lightbulb moments recently while teaching adult students about web design and development. During this semester, many of my students are in the process of changing careers. Given the changing times, many jobs that existed previously are no longer needed. For example, multiple students were newspaper editors and are now forced to go digital and learn how to be digital website editors. While some of the concepts are still the same, the struggle I see them facing is they are comparing everything to when they were working in a print-based domain.
I came to the realization that the learning of these new digital skills is being negatively impacted by the fact they already have mental models about similar, yet outdated topics, which are not transferable to the current needs. Before I can teach them these skills, I must help them unlearn their current skills which are getting in the way.
Welcome to the 21st century! The business landscape has changed phenomenally and so have the strategies ranging from marketing and customer success to organizational design and leadership, and literally everything in between. While one way of thinking – like in the example about students familiar with print design trying to learn about digital design – may have been valid for a certain time and context, that mental model may very well be obsolete today in the era of digitalization, globalization, and deregulation.
It is estimated that the half-life of many skills nowadays can be as short as five years. Up to 40% of what university students are learning will be obsolete a decade from now. The top 10 most in-demand jobs today didn’t even exist 10 years ago. Today, every industry is a technology industry. Given this era of accelerating change, we must find innovative solutions on how to continue to learn and stay on top of the changes. Rather than just building new learning content to educate on newly required skills, it is now required to first spend time unlearning old, outdated models and skills. Alvin Toffler described this when he said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
Unlearning is not about forgetting a skill. It is about the ability to choose an alternative, and more current, mental model. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside a mental model in order to choose a different one or to make updates to existing ones to better guide our decisions. Sounds simple, right? Not really. Take a look at this video where someone who already knows how to ride a bike is trying to learn how to ride a bike with an updated steering mechanism.
So, how do we unlearn? There are three steps. First is becoming aware and accepting that the model currently being used is no longer working. This is in fact the hardest step as many mental models are unconscious. Then you need to learn a new model independently from comparing it to the old model. Finally, you need to apply that model enough times that it becomes part of your new way of thinking.
This digital era we are in is not just about another technology. It is about a technology transformation which is allowing us to rethink everything from our business models, including the way we think about customers, business, offerings, management. We must unlearn how we used to define the customer experience and learn a new approach. Products need to evolve to focus with the customer on the inside. It is no longer important what the box looks like of the product being shipped in. It is about how that box transforms into new value for the customer over time. This requires companies to unlearn the concept of passive production and learn models of active collaboration. We have to learn how to go beyond the limits of a product to include focus on downstream sources of value, like trust, reliability of supply, experience and reputation, to name a few.
While unlearning is critical in this example, I want to stress this is not the only place that unlearning is required. It is required when any of your mental models are outdated due to the changing and evolving times. This can include also when you are doing the same job, but at a different company. It is likely nowadays that companies in the same industry will do business differently. They will have different structures and practices in place and will have a different organizational culture. You will need to unlearn here as well. Just because something worked at a one company, does not mean it will work at the new one anymore.
Unlearning is also an important concept in personal development. Is there anything you are currently stuck on, like a belief that is holding you back today? Potentially, there is something you continue to do regularly that is not productive. Take a step back and re-educate yourself on those topics, apply that new knowledge routinely to break out of the rut. As one example, have you ever had a negative situation and believed it was someone else who was responsible for it? When that happened did you believe it was the other person who had to change? Break out of that mental model and realize that you can help yourself by letting go of those beliefs. We cannot control what someone says or does, but we can choose and control how we react to it.
I would encourage everyone who is tasked with either learning something new at work or who is stuck in a rut to first take a step back, be aware of your current knowledge and experience about how related things work. Then, be aware and challenge your mental model. If you apply this at work and in life, you will be on the right path to start seeing the positive changes you are looking for. Remember, as Darwin said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”