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.

Who Likes to Fail?


Here’s the thing about embracing failure. It sounds great in the abstract, but it’s often painful as an actual experience. Sometimes I’ll pose a question: “Who likes to fail?” And no matter how innovation-hungry or start-up ready the room I’m speaking to might be, I’ve never had anybody say yes. Until recently.
 After raising his hand, a talented GE software engineer said that he’d actually developed an appetite for failure in his career — one that’s served him well. In his first few weeks with the company, this engineer dug his heels in and stuck with a favorite software tool he felt was best suited to the job at hand. But when it came down to the wire, his pet solution tanked. So he was forced to spend his weekend frantically creating a hybrid of his own work and what the rest of his department had been building. The resulting innovation ended up saving the day, and his job. 
 In the short run, failure was worth the gut-wrenching feeling that he was sure to get fired.
 And that’s the other thing about embracing failure. It works best when we’ve put everything we can into our work. Failure, then, is like everything else: we get back what we put in. 
 To quote the software engineer: “If I didn’t fail, I wouldn’t have learned anything. And if I hadn’t had the courage to put everything I had in it, to fail fast, I would have been out of the job. I also learned that you can fail and learn if your leader trusts you.”
 The last point, about failure from a leader’s perspective, is important. Failure from an individual perspective is one thing, but what are you supposed to say to your boss when it happens? And if you’re in a leadership role, how do you react when people come to you with bad news, or ask permission to try something that might fail?
 For both team leaders and individuals, making failure useful starts with the right questions. Instead of “What went wrong?” you might ask “What did we learn?” Instead of prescribing a particular course of action, try giving teams a goal, with a vision of what good might look like, along with a broad set of parameters to work in. Then ask them how they plan to get their own their own — and hammer home that it’s okay for them to make some mistakes on the way. One leader I know says her role is “being present for the problem.” While finding it uncomfortable at first, she’s found that giving her team freedom to figure it out has resulted in more creativity.
 “What’s your hypothesis?” is another one of my favorite go-to questions. That’s the essence of GE’s FastWorks approach. With FastWorks, you create an opportunity to test out a view of reality, and amend it every time you get new information. It’s an experimental mindset — and one that business isn’t always comfortable with. Conventional wisdom says we’re supposed to know all the answers all the time. Nope, that’s a state of mind that’s sure to lead to a dead-end.
 When I get asked “What’s your biggest failure?” I often hesitate. Not because I haven’t failed, but because I do it so often. To be honest, when it comes to defining the way that failure is woven in to my work, I don’t even know where to start. I even feel that the question comes with the pressure to have the perfect failure, the one that meshes perfectly with whatever discussion I’m in, or even crystallizes the evolution of my entire career.
 But the truth is, there’s no one big failure that results in a transformative lesson that’s a prelude to an unblemished future. For most of us mere mortals, we’re in continual failing mode. Sometimes the failures are big, sometimes they are small. With the right mindset, one that’s as honest and fearless from the start, it’s easier to fail small, early and regularly, rather than waiting for the big dramatic explosion. It’s a daily process, and it doesn’t always feel great, but I’ve come to treasure it as a constant source of meaning and motivation. When I fail, I know I’m on the ropes but still in the game, which is the only place I ever want to be.
 The small, daily grind of failing and learning is how we get better. And for some types of knowledge, it’s the only way to get them.
 This week, I’ll be asking myself: How have I failed? What did I learn? How can I fail better next time? I’d love to hear your answers to these questions in the comments.

Four-ish Reasons to Embrace Vagueness At Work


Following directions?

Most families have one — that relative who makes the cake, or bakes the pie or cookies that everybody wants on holidays. In my family, it’s my mother Shelby. No matter how hard we try to recreate her recipe for pecan bars, they never end up tasting as good as hers. They make people swoon.
I’ve always wondered about this phenomenon, since baking is essentially just following instructions. You measure out the amounts, set the right temperature, and take things out of the oven when the timer goes off. It’s like a lab experiment. There are even beakers and thermometers made specially to help bakers be more precise. 
So what’s the difference between an adequate cake and a great one? Not precision, but vagueness. 
Ask the master baker why they’re doing what they’re doing, and you’ll get a vague answer: “Oh, I just add a pinch of this or that.” Ask any artist how they work and at some point you bump up against mystery. 
I used to think this was a way of protecting trade secrets. But now I suspect it’s because any truly effective process is always partly undefined. 
Appliance designers have caught on to this. You can now buy rice cookers that use fuzzy logic, programming that lets computers think in shades of gray between 1 and 0. Fuzzy logic adjusts for things like external temperature and humidity, just as a human being might. 
Quantum computers, which have the potential to be orders of magnitude more powerful than any computer around today, are built around the concept of vagueness. They can not only think in values between 1 and 0, but can think in 1s and 0s at the same time. Quantum computers can, in essence, hold two contradictory ideas in their head at the same time. The result is better, more nuanced decisions.

The U.S. Capitol Dome, unfinished
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