Learning to unlearn and change behaviours

31 May

In a time of constant change; changing market conditions, changing customer expectations and new and emerging technologies, organisations need to be continuously transforming and adapting to keep up with the rate of change. For both organisations and individuals to thrive in a world of digital disruption, continuous learning is the key to continuous improvement. Enterprises need to become "learning organisations" that foster a culture of curiosity and experimentation in order to learn and adapt quickly in the face of change. For employees, this now means that the ability to learn and adapt is more important than having specific and specialised skills or knowledge which can fast become obsolete.   

Becoming a "learning organisation" that is future-focused and innovative requires taking the time to reflect on current work practices and processes and the way we think about them. This can be a lot easier said than done, especially in organisations that are risk-averse and that rely on hierarchies and command-and-control management styles to maintain the status-quo. 

The problem isn't that we need to learn more; it's that we need to unlearn old and outdated ways of working and thinking that have become ingrained as "the way we do things" to make way for new and more effective ways of working. 

Founder of Improv Effects, Jessie Shternshus says that "when we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one. We discard something learned that is false or outdated information from one's memory."

Unlearning isn't about forgetting what we already know; it's about acknowledging what we know and actively choosing a different way of looking at it. This can be difficult when we've operated in a certain mental model for a long time like things we learned in school or biases we have from our upbringing.

In all aspects of the business, we need to unlearn obsolete ways of working; from outdated processes and systems or strategies to organisational leadership. To unlearn these ways of thinking and doing you first need to look at the goals you're trying to achieve, whether or not the current approach is effective in achieving this and if not, you need to actively unlearn it. You'll need to experiment, test and measure to find a mental model that works and learn to make it a habit.

So how do we replace what we know; what is hardwired and ingrained in our minds, with new mental models or paradigms and change our behaviours? 

BJ Fogg’s Behaviour Model suggests that three things are needed to change behaviour: motivation, ability and a trigger. Fogg's equation B=MAT suggests that all of these elements have to come together to see a change in behaviour. If an individual is motivated to perform a behaviour and they have the ability to do so then all that is needed is a call-to-action.


Image result for bj fogg’s behaviour model



In Fogg's model, motivation is the primary driver of behavioural change. As shown in the diagram, when motivation and ability increase, the more likely it is that the desired behaviour will be performed. The harder this is to do, the more motivation is needed to do it. Fogg identifies three types of motivators: the sensation of instant reward, the anticipation or hope of something good happening later or the motivator of social acceptance. Different people will be motivated by different things but Fogg identifies hope as the most ethical and empowering motivator.

We're also more likely to change our behaviour if we have the ability to do it. Ability can be increased through training or mentoring and sharing knowledge and skills. It can also be increased by making the behaviour simpler or making things easier to do.

But to really break out of old habits, we need a trigger. You may be motivated and able to perform a behaviour but without a trigger, you won't be prompted to do it. The trigger could be related to the motivational element or in the form of a facilitator or could be as simple as a reminder.

Learning to unlearn and change behaviour individually and collectively as part of an organisation is the only way to continuously improve. Organisations that encourage risk-taking and experimentation and that embrace a learning culture will have a competitive advantage over those that don't.


Post by Toby Thompson