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The key to real transformation is not learning, but unlearning

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I am sure you have found out in (not-so-) recent news that COVID-19 beat most of the CEOs and CTOs hands down in driving digital transformation in organisations across all sectors globally.

It is dubbed as a the “before and after moment in the digital transformation” by one Forbes contributor Andrew Filev in his column, greatly accelerating previously slow-moving trends such as telecommuting, on-demand food and services, virtual events and the cloud.

"Despite the uncertainties in the macroeconomic and geopolitical environment, there is one thing we are certain – the world is moving toward digital-first and digital-everything.”

The benefits are not new, but why does it take a global pandemic to realise these transformations?

It is precisely because COVID-19 threw us off what we know as normal and the reality that we are so familiar with. We are now forced to unlearn the established and traditional ways of how society and businesses work. Only when we are pushed to unlearn, did we truly embrace the possibility and power of change and finally move into the new normal.

Why is it only through unlearning that you transform?

A word of gold from Margie Warrell, Forbes Columnist & Advisory Board Forbes School of Business & Technology: “Unlearning is about moving away from something -—letting go— rather than acquiring. It’s like stripping old paint. It lays the foundation for the new layer of fresh learning to be acquired and to stick. But like the painter who needs to prepare a surface, stripping the paint is 70 per cent of the work while repainting is only 30 per cent.”

Unlearning challenges assumptions in the conventional wisdom that may have become invalid and obsolete. The world changes whether you accept it or not.

Daniel Zhang, Alibaba Chairman and CEO, commented recently during their earnings call that “despite the uncertainties in the macroeconomic and geopolitical environment, there is one thing we are certain – the world is moving toward digital-first and digital-everything”. Before or after COVID-19, it is an undeniable phenomenon.

Through the global pandemic, unlearning acts as a catalyst to overcome the inertia of conventional wisdom and shake up the assumptions of what works and what doesn’t. For instance, it pushes organisations to realise:

  • You do not need your employees to work in the same physical space, in the same time zone, and within specified business hours to get things done.
  • You do not need to physically attend events or even fly for international forums and conferences to access content and networks.
  • You do not need that many meetings to complete and agree on a plan and execute it.

By unlearning, you remove all the prior multi-layered assumptions and pare your problems down to their first principles, a basic assumption that cannot be deduced any further.

That is when you can address the problem directly, effectively, and efficiently and identify the solutions:

  • You need your employees to be contactable, responsive, and accountable to get things done.
  • You need to leverage the rich media enabled by technology to access content and build your local and global networks.
  • You need to identify the key personnel in charge of the different tasks and projects and empower them to make decisions.

Only when you unlearn, can you relearn

With change being the only constant in the world, there is a need to keep adapting to stay competitive. Darwinists know best that “it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change”.

But after being put through highly structured (and time-honoured) systems of education and learning, most people would have a structured box of basic toolkits to help them understand and navigate the world.

Without unlearning, humans tend to fit everything into the box and use the (sometimes irrelevant) tools to fix novel problems and answer new questions. Sometimes, that will leave the problems badly fixed and questions badly answered, but all will agree and adopt it because it will not shake up the systems and disrupt the comfortable status quo.

That will no longer cut it, as waves of innovation and tech startups come in to disrupt the status quo. And more recently with COVID-19 catalysing this process. Businesses, government, and the people came to unlearn the old ‘rules’ and relearn the new ones.

Unlearning breaks imaginary limits

Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about removing limits and choosing an alternative mental model or paradigm.

Michael Porter’s five forces is a foundational framework that most business and strategy experts learn and use to build their competitive advantage. It is about setting limits to achieve based on what you know.

However, in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, it may become irrelevant by the time you set the limits and definitions to achieve, causing the organisation to always be falling behind.

“The Porter model of strategy isn’t obsolete. But it is decidedly incomplete. It takes unlearning to see the model as only one possibility rather than canonical truth”. From design thinking to lean and agile to Ross and Lemkin’s From Impossible to Inevitable, recent popular frameworks that guide businesses and strategy starts with breaking imaginary limits, rapid prototyping, and iterations, and finding a combination that works for you.

This had allowed breakthroughs of immensely successful companies such as Google, Facebook, Uber/Grab, and Airbnb, as they focus on removing limits rather than setting them.

In all, real transformation is not just about learning but unlearning. By unlearning, you challenge obsolete assumptions and conventional wisdom, enable yourself to relearn, and achieve breakthroughs in mindset limits. Let me end with a short story I came across:

“Once a very bright student from Japan comes to see a Zen master with excitement and pride and says ‘Master. I’ve gone all around the world and studied all religions; I master now all philosophies, the only thing I don’t know is Zen. Teach me everything I don’t know about Zen so that I can become a master myself.’

The master doesn’t respond, instead, he puts an empty teacup in front of the student and starts pouring tea. He doesn’t stop, he keeps on pouring and soon the tea starts spilling on the table. The student got very upset and almost yells at the master. ‘Master stop!! You can’t pour any more tea in it. It’s full.’

The master stops, smiles, and says, ‘Like this cup, your mind is also full. How can I teach you Zen unless you don’t empty your cup?’

This article was first published on e27, on Jun. 3, 2020