Unlearning and Relearning for Change

Maintaining the status quo almost always leads to failure in an organization. Future success requires change. Change requires new patterns of thinking and acting. New patterns of thinking and acting require unlearning. What does it mean to “unlearn” patterns of thought? What does it mean to “unlearn” patterns of behavior?

We cannot expect future organizational success if we do not continue to evolve core thinking and behavior patterns. This change is a process. It’s not a switch that gets flipped. Change is not implemented by executive order: Today, we are different than we were yesterday. We will no longer think like that. Here are the new thought patterns. We will no longer act like that. Here is the list of new actions.

I’ve been privileged to witness truly transformational change in a few organizations. The benefit of 20/20 hindsight and having observed these organizations over several years allows me to see the before, during, and after in each situation. The common theme, of course, is that people change. People change by learning to think and act in new ways.

Organizational success is not achieved by creating a new strategy. Success is not due to an exciting mission statement and vision of the future. Nor is success in your organization a function of the right team structures and relationships. It’s not even having the right products and services.

Your organization is successful, or not, because of what happens in the 6 inches between each person’s ears…and how well each person can reshape what happens in that 6-inch space to support the new strategy, the new mission and vision statement, the team structures and relationships, and the new products and services.

So how do we unlearn?

A recent HBR blog article addressed this topic by proposing three phases of unlearning and learning new ways:

  1. Recognize that the old mental model is no longer relevant or effective.
  2. Find or create a new model that can better achieve your goals.
  3. Ingrain the new mental habits.

I affirm that 3-step process, but it’s not complete. An important dimension is missing—one that will ground the unlearning and relearning process in personal and organizational relevance. Without this relevance people won’t be committed to the change and the organization will not experience the change it requires for future success.

The whole process of unlearning and relearning must be aligned with both personal and organizational values and with strategic capabilities.

In step 1, when you are examining how the old mental models are no longer relevant, you must frame that in the context of how they are not relevant to personal values and strengths. (Or perhaps you’ll find that the old models are indeed highly relevant on a personal level. If so, then you’ll have to consider how committed you are to personal change on behalf of the organization.)

Also in step 1, you must evaluate the old mental models in the context of organizational values and strengths, or strategic capabilities. You should see how they are no longer aligned with the future vision. (If that misalignment is not apparent, then the proposed “future vision” is still too rooted in the past and the change plan is at risk.)

In step 2, when you move to finding or creating new mental models, they too must be aligned with values and strengths that support the future direction. This must happen on both the personal and organizational level. Once again, if the alignment is not evident, something is very wrong.

Either you are not aligned with the direction of the organization or the organization has not adequately identified changes needed to support the new future.

If personal and organizational alignment is not realized, there will never be success attempting to ingrain the new mental habits in step 3.

So, yes, I affirm Mark Bonchek’s 3-step model, but it doesn’t go far enough. If that process is executed without careful evaluation of the alignment between old and new mental models with the planned vision of the future, you could end up with a much larger mess than you started with.

In summary:

  • Individuals should be able to identify how their own emerging values and strengths are moving away from the old mental models of the organization.
  • Similarly, the organization’s values and strengths should also be moving away from the old mental models.
  • Emerging individual and organizational values and strengths should be moving toward the new mental models.
  • Without proper alignment to the future desired state, new mental models will never take root in individuals or the organization.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo by Austin Smart. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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