19 Mar Why You Need to Unlearn to Innovate
Post by Ronald Amodeo
Our current knowledge traps business leaders from rapidly assimilating something new. What heuristic can help?
At a TED conference in 2006, Hans Rosling (Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden) described a "pre-test" he had given to entering Swedish undergraduates, all brightest of the bright. He wanted to better understand the talent he would be working with. The test showed five pairs of countries.
It asked students to pick one country from each pair (e.g. Sri Lanka or Turkey) that they thought had the highest child mortality rate. In the results, the students averaged 1.8 / 5.0 (36%) correct answers. Yet, as Rosling dryly pointed out, if chimpanzees had taken the test, the score likely would have been better (a 50% average, based on chimps choosing randomly). He then made this comment about the new students:
“The problem for me was not ignorance, it was preconceived ideas.”
Many organizations struggle with preconceived ideas. Smart, experienced people are often asked to create or evaluate new opportunities, yet they fail, not intentionally, but because they remain ignorant of their acquired biases. Over time, without intending harm, these people become limited in their ability to accept ideas that others rapidly assimilate.
This is nothing new. Companies like Amazon and eBay were beneficiaries of big retailers failing to grasp the disruptive power of the Internet. In fact, pick any great business advance and you will find strong established companies who inexplicably missed out.
Why? Because continual learning is hard. Companies want to be "learning organizations", but internal experts do not have unlimited mental bandwidth. Faced with new situations, they resort to what they know rather than saying "I don't know" and investing the time to learn something new. And thus we follow them, even to our demise, because they've earned our trust.
What companies should aspire to is creating The Unlearning Organization. They should want their trusted leaders to rapidly identify and jettison bias and preconceived ideas prior to taking on something new. But unlearning is seriously difficult.
Airplane pilots trying to fly gliders for the first time have documented their difficulties (searching for controls that are not there, or are in the wrong place). Expert equestrians enrolled in the Parelli natural horsemanship program struggle to let the horse be in charge. All in all, unlearning is very discomforting.
Not a lot has been written about Unlearning. From a neuroscience perspective, it may not even be possible, given how things are wired. But what is possible is to use a simple heuristic to expose learning that may be detrimental to a new activity and unlearn it.
The approach is to identify orthodoxies that constrain your point of view, then "flip" them to see what opportunities you have (e.g., Zipcar flipped the orthodoxy of “we rent cars by the day or week” and discovered car sharing).
- Identify key orthodoxy’s you carry (e.g. video games are a waste of time).
- Flip the orthodoxy into an opportunity to learn. For example:
- How could video games be useful? In my job? In my life?
- How could this benefit me?
- Could ignoring this learning hurt me?
If you could identify 4-5 things you might need to unlearn over the next year, what would they be? Would you unlearn your target market is (because it just changed)? Would you unlearn the way you advertise (because your market just got a lot smarter)? Would you unlearn the way you approach your brand (because it's no longer in your control)? Could you even unlearn the words you use to describe your business?
In the organizational context, learning how to unlearn is vital because what we assume to be true has merged into our identity and handicapped our perspective. Only by actively challenging our assumptions … like viewing the world map from the South up … can we see opportunities with the eye of the innovator.