Learning to Unlearn

Barry O'Reilly

In today’s rapidly changing world, the importance of learning is indisputable. We must learn new technologies, market forces, organizational structures, approaches and methodologies to enable individuals and organizations to keep up.

The ability to unlearn, however, is less apparent but also highly important. What is unlearning? It’s setting aside an existing mindset or approach that may have served well in the past but is now limiting your success.

Unlearning is a concept pioneered by Barry O’Reilly, founder and CEO of ExecCamp and author of the international bestseller, “Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results.”

“We get wedded to behaviors and methods that are comfortable to us,” O’Reilly recently told PMI CCO Joe Cahill in an episode of the Center Stage podcast. “We find a business model and we optimize it, and then there’s a new technology innovation and we’re disrupted.”

To adapt, leaders need to build systems that facilitate rapid responses to change. And those systems need to focus on people, not processes. “The truth is it’s not organizations that get disrupted, it’s individuals,” said O’Reilly, “because we get stuck holding onto behaviors that made us successful in the past rather than adapting to the changing circumstance that we face.”

Remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic is an excellent example of how organizations benefit from being prepared for disruption. Companies that were willing to let go of traditional models and adapt to the growing demand for flexible work arrangements fared best. They already had systems in place to enable their entire workforce to transition to remote work with fewer hurdles and business interruptions. 

Another case that O’Reilly shares in his book is from a large financial company. They knew they needed a digital transformation to stay relevant, but they also knew that it was not simply a matter of using new technology to facilitate old ways of working. To really thrive, they needed new approaches to meet the growing customer demand for digital tools and services.

Employees received training in new technologies and were empowered to build new products that they could test and iterate with customers. As a result of this shift in thinking, the company is now growing significantly and is well positioned to continue this innovation as the marketplace evolves.

“The key,” O’Reilly explains, “is to stop focusing on processes or deliverables because these are often based on existing ways of doing things. Instead, get leaders to start describing outcomes.” So rather than say you want to build a mobile banking app, say that you want customers to invest 50% more with the company.

Once you determine those benchmarks, let everyone in your organization contribute to how you get there. “What we see with high-performance organizations is, you give people problems, you give them the outcomes that you’re aiming for, and then they will start coming up with ways to get there that you could never even imagine,” O’Reilly said. “And when they’re responsible for making those choices, that’s where you get the higher engagement in teams because they are problem-solving.”

Go deeper by listening to the full podcast, Unlearn to Achieve, with Barry O’Reilly and Joe Cahill, only on PMI’s Center Stage.

Digital Exclusive article developed for Project Management Institute, Inc. by staff content writer Jill Diffendal.

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