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How to ‘unlearn’ your habitual behaviours and step closer to success

31 Oct 2019

Business adviser, entrepreneur and author Barry O’Reilly discusses the importance of ‘unlearning’ for a successful career.

You’ve likely heard about the importance of lifelong learning for a healthy and progressive career, but what about the process of ‘unlearning’?

According to Barry O’Reilly, a business adviser and entrepreneur, it’s just as crucial to your success. Here, he discusses the importance of change and “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable”.

‘Disruption does not actually apply to organisations. The truth is, it applies to individuals’

What are the behaviours that leaders of today need to forget?

I believe there are a variety of reasons why individuals get stuck doing the same methods over and over again, instead of leading innovation in their markets. The main method that needs to be let go of is the belief that doing what brought you success today will bring you success tomorrow. Unfortunately, the systems, models and methods that work today can actually limit your ability to change.

Leaders need to sharpen their ability to unlearn their existing mindset and behaviour, especially when it has enabled them to succeed to date. While learning is one part, the answer is not only to learn. The majority of the time we struggle even more to know what to let go of, move away from and unlearn.

Should we be rethinking our current mindsets?

Lifelong learning is now assumed to be necessary for high-performance people and organisations. If you ask any executives or business leaders, they will say they are a learning organisation – an idea popularised by Peter Senge’s seminal book, The Fifth Discipline.

Yet one of the first references to the idea of organisational unlearning was in an article by Bo Hedberg in 1981. According to Hedberg, gaining new knowledge first requires unlearning knowledge that is no longer of use or that has become outdated and an obstacle in the way of our progress. It’s this unlearning that often goes missing in leaders and the organisations they lead.

You only have to look at the changing of the S&P 500 guard since 1990 to find evidence of who listened and applied both lessons, and who did not. The people leading the companies that are winning today – Apple, Amazon, Google and other tech firms – took these lessons to heart, while the losers, including Sears, Lehman Brothers and General Electric, did not.

Disruption does not actually apply to organisations. The truth is, it applies to individuals. Just as products have features, and they must continuously innovate to stay relevant in their market, humans have behaviours. Therefore you must continuously innovate your behaviour to stay relevant in the market – or you risk being disrupted.

Headshot of a dark-haired man in an outdoor setting, smiling into the camera.

Barry O’Reilly. Image: Barry O’Reilly.

Can you talk about outcome-based innovation?

Outcome-based implementation can be achieved by shifting to an outcome-based approach. An outcome-based approach is non-negotiable in creating a culture of experimentation and learning. It demands that you clarify the success you seek, in quantifiable terms, by crisply defining what you’re trying to achieve so that people know why it matters.

If people aren’t clear on the desired outcomes of the company, product or piece of work they are a part of, how can they ever help achieve it?

When people lack clarity of the desired outcomes, they will optimise for what is in their control – output that is attainable to them, but not necessarily the outcomes they want to produce.

Work of today is constantly changing. How can leaders prepare for the future of work?

Leaders need to realise that the problem with transformation is never a lack of ideas; it’s a lack of a change in behaviour.

International Airlines Group (IAG) – the parent company of Aer Lingus, British Airways and Vueling, among others – is the third largest airline group in Europe and the sixth largest in the world.

A few years ago, the company came to the realisation that sending its executives to short training workshops was not enough to move the needle sufficiently to disrupt their behaviours and mindsets. They rightly believed that bringing about real transformation would require the much deeper and longer commitment of its most experienced leaders.

IAG asked: “How can we think big and start small, to have a systemic and sustained impact on how our leaders lead and on how we lead our industry?”

Its answer? What if six of IAG’s most senior leaders were taken out of cross-company business divisions for eight weeks – completely removed from their day-to-day responsibilities – with the mission to launch new businesses to disrupt their existing business and, in turn, themselves?

IAG came to the realisation that if it wanted to have a breakthrough in leadership mindset and business results, it had to behave differently, not its teams, and it had to commit to that for a period of time.

You don’t trigger a shift in mindset by simply thinking differently, you start by acting differently. This is what impacts your mindset. Behaving in new ways changes your perspective on situations, which in turn impacts your mindset. The resulting shift in mindset then affects your behaviour, and so a virtuous cycle of new thinking begins.

By setting an aspiration to discover six ideas to change the course of its industry and transform the company and its leadership, IAG identified numerous industry innovations. However, the biggest impact was the shift in the mindsets of its leaders as they returned to their companies and became coaches for others in the organisation.

Along with unlearning, what are the most important things that leaders need to embrace?

Top-level executives need to embrace uncertainty and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

They need to consider what great leaders and successful companies have in common. Not only have they cultivated a capability within themselves to innovate, adapt and anticipate the future, but they invest in experiences that enable them to grow. They seek situations that are uncomfortable and in which the results are uncertain.

They create mechanisms to experiment quickly, and safely gather new information to evolve into something better. They succeed over the long term by not holding on to what once brought them success. How they succeed isn’t magical, it’s methodical. It’s not down to serendipity or luck – they have intentional systems.

Consider Elon Musk and the missions of the organisations he creates. He didn’t start PayPal, Tesla or SpaceX because it was easy. He chose to do it – in the words of John F Kennedy – “not because it is easy, but because it is hard”.

I think when we actively choose to get uncomfortable and take on greater challenges, we learn more about our strengths and weaknesses and areas to improve.

To manage this uncertainty, think about the aspiration or outcome you want to achieve. You also need to start small and learn fast to discover what works and what doesn’t.

By starting small, it limits the blast radius as we relearn. Small steps and experiments also create the safe-to-fail environment required to break through.

You’re operating outside your comfort zone, but neither you nor your team will trigger catastrophic consequences if it doesn’t work out as predicted. In fact, you should not expect it to as you take your first steps into the unknown.

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