How I Unlearn


There’s a great story about a Zen master and a professor. When the professor visited the master to learn about the essence of Zen, the master served tea. He kept pouring after the professor’s cup was full, until the tea spilled onto the table. When the professor protested, the master put down the tea pot and said, “Just like your cup, you’re full of your own ideas. How can I show you Zen if you already think you know everything?” 
When it comes to the transformation of our organizations in The Emergent Era, we’re all pretty much in the place of that professor. And in the place of the master, we’ve got the forces we’re all up against: acceleration, the rise of mobile and distributed systems, and the blending of the physical and digital worlds, to name a few. 
We’re caught in between the structures of the future, which are still self-assembling, and the structures of the past, which are being disassembled. When it comes to getting things done, what we think we know about the how the world works is not always useful. To keep things moving, we have no choice but to unlearn. 
This is a tough one for me. 
I was one of those “little miss can’t-be-wrong” girls in school. Before the question was even out of the teacher’s mouth, my hand was up and my mind was straining with the desire to share what I knew. I loved the sense of control that came with being certain (as well as the gold star stickers that we got as rewards for having the right answer). 
To move forward in my own career, and to help my organization move forward, I’ve had to change. I’ve had to make it a habit to clear my mind of what I know, including my unspoken assumptions, and approach things with a blank slate. 
Here are three opportunities to unlearn that I try to spot and take advantage of: 
Unlearning From the Customer. I have Eric Ries to thank for this one. If the essence of the work you’re doing is testing out a hypothesis, an assumption about the world, then the customer is where all your experimental feedback comes from. It’s the customer that tells you if your hypothesis is wrong or right. There is truly nothing that will clear out old assumptions faster than taking what you’re building and sharing it with somebody who might want to use it. If you’re willing to set your ego aside and really listen, the potential for productive unlearning here is vast. This is actually tougher than it sounds. As somebody who loves to share what I’ve learned and what I think is awesome about my projects, I’ve had to curtail that impulse to make this practice work. 
Unlearning Through Curiosity. Sometimes, setting aside your emotions and direct impressions is a crucial skill. When we have a tight deadline, we can’t indulge every stray thought. But selectively listening to stray thoughts can be productive. If you find yourself dreading a project or consistently annoyed by it, it’s worth taking ten or fifteen minutes to think back to the moments when you felt that way and why. It might help you see the outlines of a problem that’s just below the surface. The same goes for sudden bursts of curiosity. At first blush, curiosity can actually look like distraction. But if something about your project is causing you and your team to ask a series of questions or go off on tangents, take a moment and ask yourselves why. Is there a potential opportunity lurking behind this curiosity, an assumption that could turn your work on its head? When curiosity crops up, don’t always ignore it. It might point out where your assumptions are holding you back. 
Unlearning In Advance. Because of my vantage point at GE, by the time I see a project for the second or third time, a lot has happened. I’m often seeing work that a team has been digging into for weeks, even months, and I’m being asked to make an assessment. When I encounter works in progress in this way, I have to set a sharp limit for how much detail I’m going to allow myself to absorb. Too little, and I won’t be able to make an informed call. Too much, I’ll lose my outsider’s perspective, which is probably the most useful thing I can offer the team at that point. The ability to come in with a set of (carefully) uninformed questions can help people who’ve been close to something for too long see new ways forward. The catch is that I can’t allow my own curiosity to get the better of me — I have to consciously make myself stop taking in new information. As weird as it sounds, the less you know about a project, the more creative you can be. 
How do you get rid of what you think you know? Do you know anybody who unlearns particularly well? What assumptions am I making here that I’m not even aware of? Let me know in the comments.

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