Opinion 30-05-2019 0

The Chameleon Shift

Putting lipstick on a pig doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a pig

A lot of emphasis is put on acquiring new knowledge, developing new skills or trying new things as some base requirement for human improvement. But the thing is, if you don’t combine all this learning with a whole lot of unlearning, you end up achieving very little (building a house on shifting foundations etc.).

In fact, a lot of people out there (with psychology degrees and all sorts) believe unlearning has a larger impact on development than learning. That’s quite something, especially considering you’ve probably never heard about this before.

Much in the same way that the latest in scientific research often touts some new discovery as the actual answer to an age-old problem, discarding all previous research as misguided drivel, so do we humans need to constantly review ourselves, our businesses and the way we generally go about things.

There’s a great story about Serena Williams, who started the 2010 tennis season as the number one ranked female in her sport, only to end up sliding to number 12 by 2012, along the way, getting knocked out in the first round of the French Open and losing to a 56th ranked player – how could someone fall so far so fast?

She was training harder than ever, preparing more meticulously, and yet all the methods which had served her so well (no pun intended) in the past were no longer bringing success. Her old approaches, mindsets and tactics were now holding her back.

That all changed when she paired up with Patrick Mouratoglou in 2012 and started to unravel her strategy. Just pairing up with him was a step in the right direction, as it meant replacing her father Richard, who had coached both her, and her sister Venus, from day 1. That’s a big shift.

Serena and Patrick started small, working on things like Serena’s footwork and coordination, with every improvement in her game validating the strategy and allowing Serena to trust in the process and attempt even greater feats of unlearning. Eventually, every piece of Serena’s game had been understood, analysed and re-written, leaving her with a completely current and updated roadmap to success.

The results of her applying a simple unlearning strategy speak for themselves – she won 10 of her next 21 grand slams (the biggest tournaments in tennis) from 2012. That’s unheard of.

And it’s not like it’s a complicated process at all, it just needs to be approached with dedication, a good degree of rigour, and repeated often.

Whilst unlearning is universally applicable, it may be even more relevant in business, where the prevailing culture of an organisation is near impossible to change, and the knee-jerk reactions to typical problems often result in poor outcomes.

You don’t need to look much further than the last listed company’s financial results to see the economic and political climate justifying their decline in sales, or a general lack of consumer confidence across the industry leading to clients shifting their preferences.

But more often than not, that’s bullshit. What if sales are down because this year’s strategy just sucks, since it lacks any imaginative shift from last year?

If norms aren’t regularly challenged, then you can’t possibly remain truly current. And if you’re not current, you’re nowhere – people are far less accommodating than they used to be.

Alright then, so hopefully you’re sold on the concept by now, and wondering exactly how you would go about implementing it. On we go!

Unlearning is something you need to learn


Here are the three basic steps you’ll need to get to grips with to set yourself free of your old ways:

First, you’ll have to recognize that your old mental model is no longer relevant or effective

So basically, you need to admit you have a problem – this can be tricky since we are usually unconscious of our mental models, or perhaps afraid to admit that they are outdated. But you’ve got to put your pride aside and take the plunge

Second, you need to find or create a new model that can better achieve your goal

This is the part where you’re actually going to need to investigate whether there are better ways to achieve your goals – no shortcuts here, you’ll need to combine research with a good deal of experimentation to come to the right answer

Third, you need to turn your new model in to a habit

Don’t be too hard on yourself here, but stay aware of whether you are falling back in to your old ways. Be conscious about your approach and actively employ your new strategy wherever possible (science suggests a habit takes 66 days to form!)

(I paraphrased these concepts from an article by Mark Bonchek, which you can read in full here)

So there we have it! Perhaps before you pick up that next book, or piece of research, you might open a chapter from your own book, and just double-check that all of what you’re doing is still relevant.

If your strategy is to sit back and rely on the fact that norms and fashions do occasionally repeat themselves (we see you leopard print shirts from the 80’s!), then perhaps some self-evaluation should find its way up your priority list – the digital world doesn’t quite work that way!

To add a little Einstein weight to the argument: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when creating them”.

Take a closer look, it might be time to change your colours.

As ever, if this triggers any thoughts in your mind, we would love to engage to see where we can help disrupt any of your old models!

By Nicholas Bowman

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