Before we learn, must we first unlearn?

Sometimes I read something and think, this is awesome, how did I miss this one? Sometimes, I even get carried away and write more than 140 characters about it…

One such article explores the concept of ‘unlearning’, as a precursor, or catalyst, to learning. Learning feels like a common denominator across agile methods. But agile is not just about learning how to get better at building stuff, it’s about learning how to introduce and encourage change.

The article is ‘Unlearning Ineffective or Obsolete Technologies’ by William H Starbuck, currently a visiting professor at Cambridge. The article is an absolute goldmine, but Starbuck is also remarkable for having a CV that has to be one of the most simultaneously impregnable and impressive of all time.

The abstract grabbed me straight off: “Often before [people] can learn something new, people have to unlearn what think they already know.”

We’re familiar (and often lazy) with concepts like keeping an open mind, and perhaps techniques like DeBono’s thinking hats which invite other perspectives. Deliberate unlearning though, seems counter intuitive and somewhat destructive, especially if the ultimate aim is to learn more.

The article is packed with great antidotes to reinforce the messages, from how a navy spent weeks bombing aquatic mammals they believed were submarines to exploding steam boats and Sony Walkman development.

Frankly I’d recommend you stop reading this now, and read full the paper, but if you don’t have the time available, allow me to offer a summary:

Starbuck suggests that there are three key points to recognize in order to encourage learning.

1.Learning cannot happen without unlearning – current beliefs are blinkers, something is required to demonstrate that people should no longer rely on their current beliefs and methods – “Expertise creates perceptual filters that keep experts from noticing technical and social changes”
2. Organizations make it difficult to learn without first unlearning. Policies and practice are often created from individual’s beliefs, and these polices mesh together to form a kind of structure, in which it is difficult to change a small part. This creates a self-perpetuating situation discouraging change, where it becomes hard to change anything without dismantling the whole system.
3. Unlearning by people in organizations may depend on political changes. I think the key point here is that unlearning may need to be enabled by people changes. The motivation may be political or something more mundane, the change in influencer is the significant part. This is because information is interpreted by people, influential people create ways of working, culture and policies. Any modification to these may be seen as a threat to the individual and suppressed, rather than exploring suggested change. Starbuck suggests this is why senior managers are prone to overlook, and miss-interpret bad news.

I hear things that support these views time and time again, phrases like “our Agile culture was going no where until so-and-so joined, or so-and-so finally left”. Other disruptions seem to foster unlearning – particularly stronger collaboration and a better appreciation for the challenges of other teams, something very visible in the DevOps movement.

Starbucks goes on to identify methods, or viewpoints, to encourage unlearing.

Dissatisfaction – A common reason for doubting, and reconsidering current approaches, he observes that this can take a long time, presumably requiring a high level of discontent before people are motivated to seek change.

“It’s only an experiment” – There is a mind trick that goes on when we are in experimental mode; we take calculated risks, and we are more observant, we want to evaluate outcomes, rather than preferring a particular one. Often there is less to loose if the results aren’t as predicted. Starbuck puts it: “[Experiments] create opportunities to surprise”. As a side note, Cynefin recognizes the value of this, and promotes safe to fail experiments, nice post here.

“Surprises should be questions marks” – In other words when something surprises us, we should not dismiss it, or categorize it as an interesting anomaly, but look to see if it challenges any of our beliefs or assumptions.

“All descents and warnings have some validity” – Starbuck admits that this is a little over zealous, and there are sources of dissent that don’t provide value, never the less in many cases there is something to gain. Often these comments are attempts to warn or inform, and merit attention.

“Collaborators who disagree are both right” – or rather, there are elements of truth in both arguments. In these situations the art is discovering how the seemingly contradictory elements can both exist. This doesn’t mean creating a compromised win-win situation. It means challenging assumptions and seeking new models until there is understanding.

“What does a stranger think strange?” – Strangers haven’t been exposed to, or adopted, your ways of working, and therefore are more likely to challenge and make valuable observations. In my opinion this is yet another reason to pay close attention to new hires, especially if they are new to the industry or fresh from college.

“All casual arrows have two heads” – If I’ve interpreted it correctly, this indicates that we should change the way we consider flow, by recognizing that there are two directions for each path and we should seek out overlooked feedback routes. Starbuck illustrates with a great example: Mass vehicle manufacturing was once be based on accumulating inventory. Materials were shaped into components, components into cars and customers selected cars from the vehicle inventory. That’s one direction for a causal path. Taiichi Ohno saw the opposite direction and created Toyota’s just in time system, where the absence of inventory to serve customer demand stimulated flow.

“The converse of every proposition is equally valid.” – This pithy phrase is almost immediately caveated to indicate that not all propositions have a valid converse. I guess the aim is to train ourselves to explore the converse, a neat method of flipping our perspectives. Are leaders really leading their people, or just servants to them?

Summing up then, Starbuck puts forward a set of useful techniques to help us overcome our inherent biases and tendency to filter what we consider threatening or bothersome. Even if you don’t agree with the techniques it’s a useful reminder, and the goals are worthwhile. These techniques may avoid some other more catastrophic event, like being fired or going out of business, being the trigger for unlearning. The term unlearning is convenient but perhaps a misnomer, nothing is discarded, it is more a recognition that current beliefs, ways of working ,or processes, no longer serve us; that it is time to seek alternatives.


3 thoughts on “Before we learn, must we first unlearn?

  1. Well Hello John, Just reinforcing/ mirroring thoughts here, You may recall Star Wars V where Yoda says “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

    I have written a book on the conflict between knowing and not knowing, titled “Principles of Applied Stupidity” . . . . . .

    In American schools there is great shame attached to “not knowing the answer” and so we train people on an emotional level to always get to where they think they know the answer, and they are very uncomfortable with any thought or feeling of being at all ignorant. This “humility-ectomy” is a massive obstacle to personal growth. So my book looks at ways to undo this training in “smartism.” The main idea is the power of humility and admitting that you don’t know everything– this was what made the great conductors so good, they created vacuums of knowledge that we felt obliged to fill.

    Being “the smart kid” in school I was always hobbled in life by an inner expectation to feel like I had all the answers, made me very close minded. A constant battle. Even now I fear my core language model may sound like I am trying to say I know more on the topic 😦 I hope not . . . The issue is establishing common vocabulary with like minded people so we can discuss it. It is a vast topic, and I had fun writing the book. More later- jl

  2. I have long said “The hard part of being Agile is not what you learn, its what you have to unlearn.” Additive change – learning something new and doing it – is relatively easy to removing that which is no longer needed.

    What you are highlighting here is the need to question ones existing learning and make space for alternatives. Unfortunately a lot of what has passed for “knowledge management” and “best practice”, let along “software development methodologies” make this more difficult by a) writing down the way it should be (which inhibits change and experimentation) and b) creates the belief that “the best way” is known.

    Another thing which inhibits unlearning is the question of identity. When ones sees oneself as, say a Business Analyst, then one tries to follow the behaviors and values of that identity. When change requires one to unlearn on of these behaviors it becomes a question of identity which is very threatening.

  3. Pingback: What do points mean? | Erratic Mumblings

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