Experience Management

The ultimate framework for change: Unlearn

One of the most important books any business leader can read in 2020 is Unlearn: Let go of past success to achieve extraordinary business results, by leading business transformation consultant Barry O’Reilly.

At a time when every organization is looking for a roadmap forward, this book outlines the ultimate method for adapting your business for an ever-changing world - during the current pandemic and long after it.

Unlearning explained

O’Reilly has built a system he calls unlearning, defined “as the process of letting go, moving away from, and reframing once-useful mindsets and acquired behaviors that were effective in the past, but now limit our success. Unlearning is the conscious act of letting go of outdated information and actively relearning by gathering new insights to inform effective decision making and action.”

Every business across the globe has been forced to undergo some type of unlearning in 2020. For instance, have you had to rethink your employee engagement strategy while your teams work from home? Have you increased your digital presence with physical stores closed? Perhaps you’ve adjusted your media spend to accommodate changing consumer behaviors.

At some point you’ve had to do things differently. Unlearning helps by empowering you to optimize these moments by replacing old ideas with new ones designed for current challenges.

“The value of unlearning is obvious when applied to the paradox of success,” says O’Reilly. “While thinking and doing certain methods may have brought you success in the past, it’s almost certain they won’t continue to bring you success in the future. The challenge is to make the adjustments and adapt so that you do not get caught in the past.”

The beauty of unlearning

While uncertainty and change traditionally makes leaders feel uncomfortable, failing to adapt and embrace both could have fatal consequences right now.

“Our instinctive reaction when faced with uncertainty is to hit the brakes. In fact, most organizations have a vast array of processes in place designed specifically to stop activity at the first sign of any unknown, risk, or uncertainty. Stopping is the safest approach—or so we’re told.

But “playing it safe” is actually risky, especially at times when the world around us is experiencing massive, rapid change. Stopping activities, saying no, and shutting down is not the way to succeed in an uncertain environment. It’s the way to struggle, stagnate, and fall even
further behind the tide of change,” says O’Reilly.

The beauty of unlearning is that anyone can do it, you already have the resources needed to do it, and it doesn’t require investment or upskilling in a new technology.

In fact, the most challenging obstacle we face is ourselves according to O’Reilly. It’s one that is being overcome thanks to a willingness among businesses to work together.

“Over the last few months we’ve facilitated workshops with hundreds of the US’ top CIOs where they’ve come together and shared stories on what is and isn’t working. This has resulted in lots of unlearning moments.

“A common theme that’s occurred is companies measuring outcomes instead of output. Leaders now realize employees don’t need to be sat at their desk between 9 to 5 to deliver results. This is a huge shift in the way we work - and we’ve seen countless established organizations transform the way they operate because of it,” says O’Reilly.

Other notable Unlearning moments include companies like Dyson and and Ford shifting operations to build ventilators. Clothing retailers launching ranges designed for working from home, while also rethinking their go-to-market strategies with changing consumer behaviors. Gyms quickly moved to offer online classes. We’ve also seen new companies emerge to satisfy current market demands, such as the working from home furniture retailer 1to6.com.au.

“Lot’s of organizations see the change we’re experiencing as a significant opportunity. Unlearning gives them the freedom and ability to capitalize on it quickly and effectively,” added O’Reilly.

How to unlearn

Unlearning is best achieved by thinking big but starting small. Doing so allows you to operate outside of your comfort zone without putting the business at risk. This willingness to try new things and be OK with failing will require a change of habit rather than focus considering humans’ inherent fear of failure.

Key to driving a change of habit is insights into the needs and expectations of our customers and employees, says O’Reilly.

“We have much to learn from our customers and employees, and listen we must if we are to succeed. Today’s technology allows us new ways to receive customer input immediately, take action, and positively affect and improve our methods instantly. Feedback is most effective when it comes from reality, and the reality provided by those we serve far exceeds the opinions of any internal figure.”

The value of acquiring the ability to unlearn will be long lasting because even though the pandemic and associated restrictions will end, change will not. Unlearning is a “perennial skill” everyone needs, says O’Reilly.

“We’re only going to face more change on the journey ahead. Rather than learn a new discipline each time, unlearning allows you to adapt for multiple circumstances. It’s a scalable approach to change enabled by resilience and responsiveness,” added Reilly.

To learn more about the Unlearning framework join Barry O’Reilly and myself as we dive deeper into the framework in the webinar The Remarkable Power of Unlearning. This session will teach you how to unlearn the behaviors and mindsets preventing you from moving forward, and relearn new skills, strategies and innovations for immediate and long-term success.


Uncover the remarkable power of unlearning