Learning to Unlearn

January 10, 2020 by Rose Cook

Happy New Year!

I’m not a big resolution maker, but I do like to sit down and think about the year ahead and the things l hope to accomplish. At the start of the year, I like to reflect on the events of the past year, and then set new goals for myself –both personally and professionally– often amending and adjusting my objectives along the way as things grow and change. 

I especially love to challenge myself to learn new skills each year, and I encourage my team to do the same. So, with this focus on learning new skills in 2020, it feels very ironic that when my leadership team met in December, one of the topics we discussed was the concept of “unlearning!”

I read an article recently by Susan Dumas entitled “Unlearning is the New Learning,” which discusses why the process of unlearning is sometimes as critical to our success as learning a new skill can be. According to Dumas, “Unlearning is the process of discarding something from your memory. When you unlearn something, you forget it, put it aside, and you lose knowledge of it.” Unlearning can help us to think outside of the box, let go of preconceived assumptions and break bad habits. So how am I hoping to implement the idea of unlearning in 2020?

As project managers, we all bring something to the table. We compile a team with varied skill sets, and we all work together towards a common goal – successful completion of our projects. Our collective knowledge and expertise are what drives the project, and this knowledge is what we rely on when things don’t go as planned. Makes sense, right? 

However, this same wisdom and expertise can actually be a hindrance when trying to come up with new ideas or creative solutions. As much as we know about a particular subject, there’s always more to learn. When we are confronted with a new issue, it’s only natural to try and find the right solution based on what we already know. We rely on what’s within our comfort zone to solve the problem, but oftentimes, we can’t see past the boundaries of what’s comfortable and familiar. This is where unlearning can be beneficial to our processes. 

A few years ago, I wrote an article that talked about “finding your beginner’s mind,” which ties directly into this whole concept of unlearning. Having a beginner’s mindset means entering into each new experience with no preconceptions, no judgments and no fears– just an open mind filled with wonder and interest. Why is it important to approach challenges with a beginner’s mindset? The problem with bringing an “expert’s mind” to a new situation or issue is that we limit our possibilities when in reality, the possibilities are limitless.  

Unlearning can be helpful to unlocking new solutions. Yes, years of experience can be a valuable resource, but it can also limit us. Experience leaves us with preconceived notions of what may happen. These mental obstacles keep us from completely embracing a new way of thinking. In fact, some experience may actually cause unnecessary stress, because we assume to know the outcome based on these prior events. It’s like having a conditioned response to something; we have preexisting expectations based on past experiences. If any of these experiences happened to be negative, changing that mindset without unlearning isn’t always easy.  

Dumas suggests several strategies to help with the unlearning, one of which is to change locations. Why? Because being away from familiar surroundings can help engage our brains so we can unlearn one habit in order to establish a new one– all in a new environment. 

Another idea? She also suggests working with someone who is your opposite. An environment of like-minded people doesn’t foster new ideas nearly as well as an environment that is rich in diversity of viewpoints and backgrounds. Opening up your team to new points of view jumpstarts the unlearning process, which allows new learning to take place. 

Dumas also suggests encouraging your team to pursue something that is completely unfamiliar – something they have no prior knowledge of and can’t bring any preconceived ideas to. As Dumas states, “When unlearning, you have to let go of the familiar so you open your mind to the unfamiliar.” 

Letting go of what we know isn’t easy, but I think most of us could benefit from a mindset where we remove preconceptions, assumptions, and limitations.

Unlearning in order to learn could be just the thing that your team needs to evolve and grow in 2020!

The FlexPro Group is a project management consulting firm, specializing in the Life Sciences industry since 2008. FlexPro combines industry-certified experts with proven project management processes and subject matter expertise to deliver results on-time and on-budget. Our focus areas include Product Development & Commercialization, Supply Chain Optimization, Integration Management, and Early-Stage Acceleration. Contact FlexPro today to learn more!

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