Unlearning: A Critical Element of Organizational Change

Posted on: March 8, 2021, by :

Originally posted by Inside Indiana Business on February 23, 2021.

Organizations typically focus on learning and fail to address unlearning as an organizational development strategy. Whether we realize it or not, we gravitate toward what is familiar and less challenging. But without taking the time to step back and reflect upon the ways in which we approach our work we could be sabotaging our own efforts. This applies to most changes we want to implement. Instead of trying to convince your team that your change effort is the right one, help them understand why it is important to change.

Instead of trying to convince your team that your change effort is the right one, help them understand why it is important to change.

At one security system services firm, the customer service team noticed a growth in calls about product consistency. In response to this disturbing trend, the chief technology officer decided to adopt a new element that upgraded the system. The intended benefits of this change—improved reliability and customer satisfaction—were appealing, but the cost to implement was substantial. Because the systems were already installed in residences, customer service would need to contact customers and request that they install a new module themselves. Customers would have to open the system tower, remove the existing module, and install a new module. Customer service representatives were skeptical that the modules could be successfully replaced by customers.

To address their concerns, the CTO sought feedback from a cross-functional group of senior and junior representatives, they asked: If customers could successfully change the modules themselves, what would the organization gain? Employees were asked to consider the proposed change and identify any potential problems. They were also asked to create solutions to potential problems. These conversations helped reduce resistance to the proposed change and increase support for leadership’s approach. In the end, the change was implemented, and team members were prepared to support customers throughout the module exchange. This approach contributed to the adoption of change and goal achievement in less time than had they not pursued discussion first. The organization’s culture was positively impacted, and management’s credibility strengthened.   

The discussions encouraged by management were not simply exercises where employees were asked to discuss the upcoming changes among themselves prior to their implementation. Instead, the conversations were structured to help employees know their input in decision-making and change initiatives were valued. Typically, leaders attempt to roll out change initiatives because they are confident that they are right about the need for the change. They set out to convince employees they are right about the change, and seek to report back as quickly as possible to their leadership, that they have done what they could to achieve “buy-in.”

Unlearning Positions Employees to Embrace New Methods

Long-lasting change that achieves sought after results, comes from leaders acknowledging that they may not have all the answers and that they could benefit from the perspective of others. Leaders that use this approach are successful because rather than setting out to achieve buy-in, they set out to understand potential roadblocks and gather solutions from others. By having meaningful conversations with employees, they gain insight while testing and possibly refining the proposed change. The pursuit of compliance does not exist, nor is it necessary, because individuals are more willing to change when they understand why practices are established and under what conditions. The need for change becomes more apparent when this type of information is shared and understood. This practice of unlearning, of discarding practices or knowledge that are no longer relevant, position employees to learn new ways.

Overcome Challenges Associated with Change

Leaders struggle when they assume their way is the best way, they tend to approach change from the top down—they strive to appear decisive and knowledgeable. Talking points are created and other supporting leaders roll out initiatives in search of compliance. Early adopters are praised, and resisters identified. Dialogue about the change and potential problems is lacking and a small number of employees offer feedback. The limited amount of feedback enables leaders to assume acceptance and change are guaranteed.

To successfully implement change, leaders should take a slower approach when possible and assume they do not have all the answers. Too often we rush change initiatives only to discover we have offended key stakeholders or failed to have important conversations. Leaders need to start meaningful conversations and keep employees engaged. Conversations about key initiatives are not one and done. The key is to develop trust and work with others to understand assumptions and potential challenges.

When leaders fail to have meaningful conversations, they miss tapping into the very talent they hired. They sacrifice progress for adherence and miss having valuable conversations that can improve engagement and strengthen culture. When the need for change is apparent, employees can discard practices and knowledge that are no longer relevant and fully embrace new policies and practices.