The Paradox of Unlearning to Optimize Performance and Drive Productivity


When I present in front a group of Human Resources (HR) and business professionals from Atrium Health HR team meetings to large national conferences, I always start with the same slide quoting Wayne Gretzky: “ I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” This quote was in answer to a journalist’s question, “Wayne, what is making you the greatest of all time?” Being a sports fan has nothing to do with loving this quote so much (well, maybe a little). To me, the difference between good and great is the capacity to anticipate and take the right actions based on the assumptions.

In this digital world where enterprises are adapting to not only significant changes in the market, but also experiencing a dramatic acceleration in those business deviations, the capacity to be proactive truly determines the have and have nots of the business world.

That said, a new skill is becoming vital to all, not just HR professionals. The capacity to unlearn.

What Will I Unlearn Today?
The idea to come to work every day and ask yourself, “What will I unlearn today?” is quite new and very unnatural. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “unlearning: discard (something learned, especially a bad habit or false or outdated information) from one’s memory.”

This concept can be taken in every aspect of personal and professional life. How can one truly advance if you’re not willing to acknowledge that what brought you where you are today might not be the best way to keep you going optimally where you want to go? How can one truly adapt to an extremely fast evolving world with rapid technological innovations, generational trends and challenges never faced before if you’re not willing to deconstruct what made you successful in the past? When “transformation,” “evolution” and “disruption” are the business world new buzzwords, it is sending a powerful message that the capacity to unlearn will become crucial to the fruitful future of any companies. This is the foundation of a Learning Organization.

Now, the challenge resides in the fact that it is contrary from how humans are wired from a young age! For example, “What did you learn at school?” or “What will you learn from that mistake?” are only illustrations of a mindset requiring you to “pile on” your existing knowledge, in addition to learning, versus intentionally ask yourself what needs to be unlearned.

To provide a personal current scenario in which the power of unlearning is key would be Merger & Acquisitions (M&A).

Chances are that as professionals, you were at one point part of an M&A. If you work in Human Resources, the odds are, hopefully so, that you were on the frontline through most of the process. And has an HR professional, like me, you are probably asking yourself, “How can we increase the probabilities of success?” Doing it better, faster and more importantly, smoother?

Let’s review some M&A facts:

The initial M&A decision is always a business one; 1) is it creating shareholders value? 2) are we complementary (better together) or diversifying? 3) can we maximize each other’s expertise? and 4) can we save cost through synergies?
M&A are a hard and important business reality all over the world. As per Statista[1] in 2018, the value of worldwide M&A deals came to $3.9 trillion. In the United States alone, the average number of M&A per year for the past five years is 21,586 compared to an average ten years ago of 13,661 per year. This is representing a 58 percent increase!
M&A isn’t a new phenomenon, but it is clearly a trend speeding up at a pace that, ready or not, we will all have to face; especially in HR. To make it more complex, the Harvard Business Review article, “The Big Idea: the New M&A Playbook,” states about 70 to 90 percent of M&A fails![2]
In addition, M&A has always prompted emotions from all stakeholders involved. When there is an M&A, no matter where you stand from being acquired to the acquirer, and anything in between (bystander, stakeholders, etc.), deep sentiments and opinions are triggered.
And what is the true component that will define and dictate the degree of success, or lack thereof, of the M&A? You have to include people from both side of the equation.
Of course, each M&A are different. Except for a conscious decision to “swallow” the acquire or do a hostile takeover, embracing and combining the multiple culture and values is a strong determinant and predictor of what will be the end results of the M&A. Unlearning is then the key. This is all about unlearning what you know and keep you comfortable to truly open your mind to what the other party is sharing. And together, while unlearning, co-creating the culture and values. If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

The State of HR

The State of HR is in transition. The days of being merely transactional are extinct and the evolution of the strategic HR department is underway. So, what shape will the future take? Where will the focus lie in order to achieve success? Find out in our latest report: The State of HR.

Business examples where the power of unlearning would have driven the bottom line are countless. To only name a few, Blockbuster would have gained to unlearn the brick and mortar model and late fees philosophy. Blackberry would still be around having unlearned the comfort of having a keyboard on your cell phone. Toys R’ Us would still be a behemoth if they had unlearned that only in-store experience matters versus the online one.

The business world is evolving. What matters is not your level of agreement with the changes, but can you unlearn and adapt. Until now, to anticipate the changes was enough to provide competitive advantages. Not anymore. Will you move forward with the reassuring lies or the inconvenient truth. What will you unlearn today?

Source :

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *