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Why Unlearning is Your Workforce Multiplier

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2022-11-04

As leaders pivot to remote and hybrid work models, humans and machines, workforce ecosystems and talent marketplaces, there is fear and excitement but is enough being done to unlearn ‘the always done ways’? Hack Future Lab founder and MIT Entrepreneur Mentor Terence Mauri argues that now is the time for leaders to reframe their leadership narratives for a restless and accelerating future and that as the world evolves faster, there’s a lot we need to unlearn.

I recently got invited to speak at the Nordic Business Forum about the future of leadership and how many leaders are currently stuck between the certainties of the past and the unknowns of the future. I believe that a change in perspective is worth at least 80 IQ points because your current perceptions are grounded in your past assumptions. It starts with reframing and reimagining what unlearning means for you and your people. Re-perception – the ability to see, hear or become aware of something new in existing information and notice the blind spots that we are blind to is at the heart of unlearning and is crucial for sustaining leadership vitality for the long term. To help leaders do so, it is worth asking several questions: What is unlearning and how do you sustain it for the long-term?  What are the mindset shifts, assumptions and risks for this journey? And what are concrete examples of unlearning to go 10 [x] wiser or bolder at performing for today while transforming for tomorrow?

Unlearning is a form of future readiness and an accelerant for navigating uncertainty, embracing agility and learning faster. At its core, unlearning is a leader’s capacity to rethink assumptions and update mental maps and behaviours to avoid inertia or culture and transformation drift. When the ratio of assumptions to knowledge is high and the operating environment is volatile the best way of staying relevant is to build platforms of unlearning where employees have the psychological safety to eliminate old ways of working and challenge outdated assumptions and leadership behaviours that 1. No longer serve the purpose and 2. Don’t create value. Researcher Amy Edmonson’s latest research shows that 70% of people believe their voice doesn’t matter at work. That’s a sad indictment of the health of leadership today and another reason why leaders should not waste the biggest unlearning moment in their lifetimes. The case for unlearning is urgent and timely because today’s leadership challenges can’t be solved with yesterday’s thinking. 

Hack Future Lab’s emerging research shows that:

  • 93% believe their leadership is key to growth but only 27% believe it’s a strength
  • 68% report either themselves or their teams are at risk of overload and overwhelm
  • 63% highlight a productivity paradox during the pandemic where performance increased but well-being dropped
  • 56% believe they spend more time on shallow work than deep work
  • 41% can link decision making to enterprise value and strategy 
  • 20% excel at decision making 

Good leaders learn. Great leaders know they need to unlearn. To unlock the power of unlearning for leaders, Hack Future Lab embarked on a research initiative to understand how a select few companies have flourished, transforming their businesses and illuminating the way forward for others despite what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls a code red for leadership as we confront the triple crises of Climate emergency, Conflict and Covid19. Most enterprises are trapped in ‘present-forward’ mindsets, performative cultures and fake empowerment whereby they simply extend their existing mental models, ideas and assumptions about the world to the future. Leaders that bake unlearning into the DNA of the enterprise can align on a shared view of the future and work backwards from that point asking three questions.

  • What stays?
  • What changes?
  • What goes?

Pfizer is known for its nine-month race to make the impossible possible by creating the first Covid-19 vaccine in the world.  What you may not know is that CEO Dr Albert Bourla is on a mission to harness uncertainty as a tailwind to lead from the future by activating Lightspeed Behaviours across the 79,000- person enterprise (Act at speed of science, crush bureaucracy, believe in the purpose and trust one another) and bringing values to life every day (courage, equity, excellence and joy at work).  Bourla, a provocateur of bold action, knows that to change the game you must make game-changing moves. The result is learning and unlearning at the human scale in the form of:

  • Reskilling, cross-skilling and upskilling all employees with future-fit skills by 2025.
  • Scaling cultures of curiosity based on high-risk tolerance for experimentation.
  • Reframe failure as a platform that welcomes ideas that improve the status quo.
  • Role model and share stories of unlearning the ‘always done ways’ through reflection and feedforward and recognition and celebration 

A key takeaway is that you can’t have a deliberate culture or deliberate leadership without deliberate unlearning. Conformity cultures reject ideas that challenge the status quo and leaders get trapped in the ‘present forward’ way of thinking. Without unlearning, expertise and assumptions quickly become obsolete, especially as competitive advantage fades faster. Many leaders are also trapped in ‘structural stupidity’ based on six barriers to performance that can be reframed as examples of what to unlearn across the enterprise.

  • Silo/lack of cross-functional collaboration
  • Slow decision making
  • Lack of strategic clarity
  • Rigid policies
  • Formal hierarchies 
  • Bureaucratic Bloat

For example, the number of words in the US Tax Code has increased from 400,000 to 4 million in the last 20 years highlighting a human bias toward bureaucratic bloat and adding complexity to complexity. No wonder 93% of leaders struggle to focus on what matters and 63% agree they spend too much time on shallow leadership (low value/low impact) at the expense of deep leadership (high value/high impact).

We pay a leadership tax every time we forget to unlearn the ‘always done ways’ whether it’s pointless meetings (76% of leaders say most meetings don’t meet their expectations) or we schedule back-to-back Zoom calls with no ‘white space’ in the day for reflecting and refuelling. Leadership inertia can be defined as the inability to ‘unlearn the always done ways’ even when doing so will elevate the purpose and capture more value creation. So, what can you do differently today to start the journey of unlearning to activate the curiosity to learn and the courage to unlearn? Start by glimpsing into the future and asking yourself are you writing the success headlines for the future or the past? What do you want to achieve by this time next year? When you read the top headlines in 2023, what do you want them to say about your leadership? What will be your boldest moments? Let these future milestones determine what behaviours and mindsets must be different today and the unlearning you need to make happen.   

I hear that success breeds success but I think success can corrupt success too. Without intentional unlearning, it’s difficult to stay ahead of change. Worse, leaders get trapped in their optimism bubbles and to paraphrase psychologist Daniel Kahneman ‘we become blind to our blindness’ and in particular, change blindness. Hack Future Lab’s research shows that leaders that are empowered to unlearn and share stories of unlearning are significantly better at embracing humility to their blind spots and biases as well as spotting risks before they become emergencies, and seizing new paths to growth. Remember, it’s impossible to say goodbye to the status quo if you don’t have the tools to unlearn it.

Terence Mauri has been described as ‘an influential and outspoken thinker on the future of leadership’ by Thinkers50. He is the founder of a global management think tank, Hack Future Lab, an Entrepreneur Mentor at MIT and an adjunct professor at IE Business School where he lectures in the Advanced Management Program. His latest book The 3D Leader: Take your leadership to the next dimension is out now. 

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