I arrived home a few weeks ago to discover a small tree was missing from our front garden. I had known it needed to be removed, but I had liked the tree, so had been hesitant to cut it down myself. Yet as I walked up the path that evening, there it was… gone! When I mentioned it to my wife, she laughed. Turns out it had been gone for a week!
Funny, isn’t it, the things we notice and the things we don’t? How could I possibly not notice that a whole tree was missing from our front garden?! After all, I’d been walking past it and admiring it for years!
The rhythm of a well-worn habit can blind us.
The tree episode reminded me of a word I learned a few years ago from a friend at the School for Social Entrepreneurs. An important part of their training is underpinned by an approach they call ‘unlearning.’ It’s a word I’ve since used frequently in my thinking and in my work. It implies a disruption of patterns or habits of thought that no longer serve.
You must create space to allow the new to emerge.
We’ve all experienced such patterns. Perhaps we’ve settled into a rhythm with a spouse or partner that makes the relationship feel stale. Then one day we notice, talk about it, shake things up. We’ve created the space to unlearn old patterns, allowing something new to emerge.
Or perhaps it’s at work: I remember many years ago dramatically rearranging the layout of a retail store I managed, while its owner was away on vacation. He was shocked on his return to find the sales desk on the opposite side of the store! But the showroom was suddenly less claustrophobic. It felt twice as big and engaged customers far more effectively as they entered the shop. We had unlearned our perceptions of the constraints of the space.
It can be easy in any conversation—between friends, colleagues, or bigger groups—to slip into well-worn patterns. The implications, of course, range dramatically. When patterns become negative or simply no longer serve our goals, it can take a good deal of critical thinking to unearth, unpack, and unlearn the often implicit assumptions that underpin those habits.
Unlearning issues that matter.
Recently, along with my business partner, Adam Garfunkel, I’ve been contemplating how countries might shift to a wellbeing economy as one response to the climate emergency. For decades, the central principle of macroeconomics has been a relentless faith in the importance of growth. If GDP isn’t growing, then the economy isn’t performing—or so goes the dogma. Yet we know that perpetual growth on a finite planet is absurd. So this faith in GDP growth is a well-worn habit that no longer serves.
Unlearning is about transcending dogma to find what’s better.
Recently, New Zealand passed the world’s first, national, ‘wellbeing budget.’ It puts societal wellbeing at the heart of economic policy, rather than financial wealth. It’s delicious to read a document that flips the relationship between people and economics: rather than people serving economic growth, now a well-managed economy serves its people. By unlearning the dogma of neoliberalism that has permeated western democracies’ economics for half a century, New Zealand has shown the world a powerful and transformative alternative.
Unlearning has a role to play in our businesses, too. Consider the central tenet of the B Corp movement—that companies should consider the implications of their activities on all stakeholders, rather than merely the benefits to shareholders. This required the unlearning of shareholder primacy, and respects the complexities of ‘interdependence’—a central tenet in B Lab’s view of healthy economics. No entity exists in a vacuum; companies always draw support from and deliver benefits to myriad stakeholders—not the least of which is the planet itself.
How might you embrace unlearning?
Unlearning is a valuable skill for leaders, too. As owners or executives in businesses and in the social sector, we set the tone and establish the patterns that govern the way our organizations tick. What are the underpinning assumptions that lead us to work the way we do? What might change if we take a different approach? What are the ‘limiting beliefs’ that neither serve us nor our teams or organizations?
Much of Junxion’s work is delivered through group process—facilitated dialogues, highly interactive workshops, and the thing I love most of all, ‘juicy, generative conversations.’
Often, we notice habitual patterns in our clients (in people and in teams), help them to see and understand those patterns, and then encourage them to experiment with alternatives. Unlearning creates space for them to imagine possibilities that they could not previously have seen.
Recently, we were working with a client on ideation of a new campaign for their non-profit. Part way through our first planning workshop, I encouraged the group to drop the noun: “What if this isn’t a ‘campaign?’” It was a simple thought exercise, but ignoring the noun instantly stripped away all the assumptions and implications that went along with it.
What patterns prevent you from seeing bigger opportunities?
As the conversation continued, the shape of what we were doing shifted dramatically. The final outcome of the workshop was a much bigger, bolder idea for a platform on which supporters could build their own campaigns. It was an idea the group could not have reached if they’d been trapped in the well-worn habit of ‘campaigning.’
At its base, unlearning is a tool for critical thinking—the careful and objective analysis of an issue, in order to form a judgment. It requires dedicated space and time to identify and reflect upon patterns of thought that have become habitual, and that may no longer be productive. By starting with reflections on our own thinking, we equip ourselves to reflect on groups’ patterns, and even on the biggest patterns of our culture.
And perhaps unlearning the patterns of our culture will unlock the answers to the challenges of climate and equity that so deeply vex us today.
Are you ready to unlearn what’s holding you back?
Mike Rowlands is President & CEO at Junxion. Years ago, he won a small scholarship for a paper arguing that critical thinking should be included as a vital part of high school curricula. You can reach him via [email protected].