At our next Climate-KIC masterclass, “Fearless entrepreneurship” in Trinity College Dublin, Barry O’Reilly will be speaking about “Unlearning”. It dovetails lovely with the theme, which is less planning and more doing. In our view, it always begins and ends with numbers and a 100-day plan.
But without the right mindset, that is not going to work. What got you here, won’t get you there. Highly effective leaders are constantly searching for inspiration and for new ideas. But before any real breakthroughs can happen, we need to step away from the old models, mindsets, and behaviours that are limiting our potential and current performance.
The way to think differently is to act differently. You must unlearn what you have learned. The main reason for the Romans becoming masters of the world was that having fought successively against all peoples, they always gave up their own practices as soon as they found better ones. Exceptional leaders have discovered it’s not how smart they are, how much they know, how long they have been in an industry, or what they have learned. It’s the ability to recognise when to unlearn and when to let go of past success and their outdated thinking and behaviours, and innovate
Training and development does not work
Most training and development efforts in businesses today routinely fail to hit the mark. Harvard Business Review article points out that American businesses spend a tremendous amount of money on employee training and education. In 2015, this number was estimated to be approximately $160 billion in the United States and $356 billion globally.
This first step in the cycle of unlearning requires courage, self-awareness, and humility to accept that your own beliefs, mindsets, or behaviours are limiting your potential and current performance and that you must consciously move away from them. Unlearning is an act of vulnerability—of leaving behind the certainty of what you know and opening yourself up to uncertainty.
Status-quo leadership is no longer an option (applying the same models and methods everywhere you go). Leaders believe they simply need to tell people to think differently, and they will act differently. This is a fallacy that must be unlearned. You have to learn by doing. With time, focus, and permission to be bold. The single most important action of any leader is to model the behaviours you wish to see others exhibit in the organisation.
The best leaders don’t have all the answers; they ask better questions. The best leaders try stuff. Black box thinking! Best leaders think big, start small (small investment + small risk + small build), and create a safe environment to fail. No PowerPoint or promises with only words to back it up. Only results of actions with feedback. Relearning is a process of experimentation to try new behaviours and take in new data, new information, and new perspectives.
The best leaders know where they want to go. By identifying the aspiration or outcome you wish to achieve, paired with the deliberate practice to get there and starting with small steps (starting is the keyword here), you can start to move toward your desired state and achieve extraordinary results. Creating atomic habits.
Tell stories of what success might look like if they solved the challenge they decided to tackle. Ask people to visualise or tell themselves the story of what it would look like six months, a year, or three years after they solved that challenge. Visualising and telling stories of success in the future is a great way to unlearn your thinking and create a bold vision and definition of that success. The powerful part of telling stories is that we start to describe the behaviours that we, our people and our customers would be exhibiting if we have indeed unlearned.
You put numbers on everything
For instance, if you wish to leave work feeling accomplished, quantify it. How often would it be happening? Hopefully, not just once. How about four out of five days a week, or even better, 80% of the time? Using rates and ratios makes our measure of success more actionable and accountable over time.
Lead by example
Always remember, the best way to create new behaviours—for yourself and for your organisation—is to demonstrate them yourself and show people you are committed to improving how you work, how your systems work, and how everyone could work.
Starting small, even smaller than you think
The key reason for starting small is to make people feel successful as quickly as possible and to enable them to see the result of their new behaviour as they progress toward their larger aspiration or outcome. The path to success is to break down the aspiration into small, specific behaviours using a method called “Tiny Habits”. Behaviour happens when three things come together: motivation, ability, and a prompt. Doing something small can have a systemic-level impact and network effect, making something magical happen in the organisation.
As you experience breakthroughs and free ourselves of your existing mental models and methods, you learn to let go of the past to achieve extraordinary results. Your breakthroughs provide the opportunity to reflect on the lessons we have learned from relearning and provide the springboard for tackling bigger and more audacious challenges ahead of us.
Professional athletes have long known the power of using feedback and reflection to improve their performance and achieve breakthroughs. After breakthrough, the cycle starts all over again as leaders deliberately practice unlearning, building muscle memory to push forward with new initiatives, new innovations, new ideas, and new systems of operating.
In the majority of organisations, being busy is systemic, and often for perverse reasons. You breakthrough by stepping back and reflecting on exactly what it is you are doing and the results your effort is yielding. “Did you do the tasks?” and then move on to the next one, and the next. It’s much harder to take the time to find out if the task you did actually impacted the outcomes that you were trying to achieve. Outcomes matter more than outputs.
Measure your outcomes over output
Strive to gather feedback in real-time to discover rapidly how your efforts have been received, thus optimising your adaptions and next actions in minutes, hours, and days rather than weeks, months, and years as might be the case with traditional approaches.
- Declare a hypothesis for improvement that will address the challenge you’re facing
- Define outcome-based measures of success before starting experiments, and then hold yourself accountable for them.
- Recognise that the only true failure is the failure to learn, so learn fast.
The key is deliberate practice, which demands explicit focus, reflection, and taking on more challenging tasks to keep improving and progressing toward extraordinary results. That is why the people who push ahead are the ones who are constantly trying to find their knowledge thresholds, their skills thresholds, and taking one step beyond that.
- Da Vinci didn’t have a to-do list; he had a to-discover list.
- The reason the biggest, most successful companies in the world are all technology companies is because they’ve built platforms that allow them to discover exactly how their customers interact with them and to more deeply understand their customers’ behaviours.
- Today’s most innovative and successful companies run thousands of experiments each year.
- In 2011, Amazon had the ability to deploy software every 11.6 seconds, which means the company could discover something new every 11.6 seconds.
CEOs, executives, and managers who hold onto legacy thinking and outmoded methods such as command and control—telling people what to do and exactly how to do it— are not only micromanaging through control systems designed by themselves and for themselves, they are also limiting the potential of the entire organisation. They forget what it is to problem-solve for themselves, and they embrace disempowerment to the point that having to think for themselves sparks fear. This learned helplessness halts extraordinary breakthroughs. When no decisions are made at the edges of the organisation—where the information is richest, the context most current, and the employees closest to customers, the organisation grinds to a halt.
The majority of managers have risen to their current positions based on their competency to know what to do when to do it, and always having the answer or solution at hand rather than helping others discover the answers and solutions. The end result of this very common situation is the Peter Principle, where managers rise to their highest level of incompetence and battle to stay there for fear of being found out.
A worker’s role is not to think, just do. Yes, this leadership conditioning and behaviour still prevails in the majority of twenty-first-century organisations—and is still taught, modelled, and learned. Leadership is about making other people successful by helping them discover the answers for themselves and guiding them along the way. Real leadership is leaving a team, an initiative, or a business—whatever situation you decide to tackle—in a better state than when you started, with new skills, capabilities, and knowledge to cope with the road ahead, even after you’re long gone. Leaving a legacy.
The myth of military command and control
Great leadership consists of clearly defining purpose, intent, and the outcomes to be achieved, and then creating systems that allow people to figure out for themselves (by way of experimentation) the best ways to achieve those desired outcomes. The army relinquished command and control by its leaders in the nineteenth century, after the Napoleonic wars. They replaced it with mission intent. Leaders describe their intent—communicating the purpose of the orders, along with the key outcome to be achieved—and then trust their people closest to the situation, who have the richest information, to make decisions aligned with achieving that outcome. That is why I think you can learn so much from the military.
That is why we have Erwin van Beek, ex-special forces, do a 4-hour leadership session at “Fearless entrepreneurship”. Leaders should have the confidence that their team is capable of making good decisions for themselves. Clarity is the responsibility of leadership. Clear mission intent. With a number.
Go to the fringes
High-performance individuals and companies create systems that allow the people closest to the richest sources of information to have the authority to make decisions because they have the most context of the situation and the competence of skills required for how best to take action. Read “Employees first, customers second“.
Stop making decisions yourself and let other people make decisions. It’s not about the leader solving the problem. It’s about coaching the employee to improve their capability and competency of doing the work, so they can better solve problems. The question for leaders is how they can move decision making to the appropriate individual and have the confidence necessary to delegate authority.
Engage with customers
For the majority of companies, engaging customers, and obtaining their feedback comprises the last step in the product journey. After we have spent significant time and money. We must unlearn the way we engage, collaborate, and create with our customers, and relearn how to interact, leverage, and connect with them to discover new innovations and breakthroughs together. Today’s most effective leaders wholeheartedly embrace the idea of removing the friction in how they communicate with customers, so they are able to solicit and receive a steady, raw feed of unsanitised information and data that is true, accurate, and as close to real-time as possible.
You need to incorporate the feedback of all your customers—both internal and external—to understand how the business is working, how the products and services you’re delivering are working, and how both can be improved. Most leaders’ default conditioning is to build or maintain layers of supervisors and managers, which creates communication handover points. These handover points always lead to slow decision making, poor collaboration, and loss of context as what’s actually happening in the organisation gets lost in the message. The best way to get actionable information is to ask your customers, putting yourself in their shoes to understand what’s really happening. Read ‘The moment of clarity“.
The days of the CEO being a scary person, locked behind the door on the twenty-first floor, who had all the answers, are rapidly coming to a close. The answers to your questions aren’t in your office; they’re outside in the world, where people are using your products and services. If you really want to understand what’s going on, you’ve got to go to the source, and you’ve got to be willing to listen.
When you truly innovate, build the future, and courageously face down uncertainty, what happens is that complex, unpredictable, and unintended consequences occur. When you build hierarchies of knowledge or silos, and information doesn’t travel across the company, organisational learning does not occur. To prevent this, you have to train, reflect on results, and have conversations that remind people what happens when things go bad. To help its employees remember, each year NASA conducts what it calls a Day of Remembrance
Netflix conducts game days where, unbeknownst to the teams, parts of the company’s live production systems are randomly shut down, and their products and services start breaking. Intentionally disabling computers in Netflix’s production environment became such a habit within the company that they built a piece of software called Chaos Monkey to randomly and automatically trigger system failures to test how their systems and teams responded to outages.
Leaders in most organisations today are massively incentivised to do what they’ve always done and squeeze a little bit more out of the existing system, versus taking a risk and unlearning what has delivered past success. Existing incentive structures are one of the biggest inhibitors for driving innovation in any organisation. It’s time to unlearn individual pay-for-performance incentives and relearn to create the conditions for authentic motivation, courageous behaviours, and exploring risky initiatives in a controlled manner to get the breakthroughs to achieve extraordinary results.
If people don’t understand or are not clear on the intent of the company, they can never move toward it. “Powerful” explains that the litmus test was being able to stop any of the company’s employees, at any level of the company, in a break room or elevator and ask them this question: “What are the five most important things the company’s working on for the next six months?” If they couldn’t reel them off one, two, three, four, five, ideally using the same words used in communications to the staff, then the Netflix leadership was failing to do its job, not the individual.
People want to have a sense of contributing to the greater good—of their organisations, their communities, and the world at large. In cases where employees have clarity of purpose in their work, alignment on how their efforts contribute to achieving it and appreciation for their efforts are enough to prompt the desired behaviours, and no incentives are needed.
For Jeff Bezos, at Amazon, it’s always Day One
When employees move past Day One, they become complacent and fearful, relying more on the comfort of the status quo instead of constantly seeking new frontiers and courageously leaning into the discomfort of the unknown. The former is the pathway to organisational decline and death. The latter is the pathway to greatness.
Action is everything
As Jeff Bezos says, “There is no Day Two—every day is Day One”. Unlearning does not lead with words; it leads with action. People do not change their mental models of the world by speaking about it; they need to experience the change to believe, feel, and see evidence of it. If you always prioritise incredible personal growth, impact, and paradigm-shifting experiences, success will gravitate toward you as if you were a magnet. So, choose not to be mediocre. Choose a life of greatness sat work, at home, in your community, and in the world.