In turbulent times, unlearn!
Ours is the new age of uncertainty. Individuals, organizations and governments attempting to find solutions to economic, political and environmental ills might want to look to the concept known as unlearning for help. Unlearning is a collaborative and creative change process used in times of flux and turbulence whereby old paradigms and practices that no longer work are repudiated and replaced by new strategies and structures that address the changed environment (Buchen, 1998).
The originating model of change on which unlearning is based was Kurt Lewin’s three-step change model (1947) involving unfreezing, moving, and [re]freezing. In unfreezing, something changes the equilibrium of the status quo, making it necessary to unlearn old behaviors, norms, rules and paradigms. During the moving step, chaos and transformation occur as many new ways of solving problems are explored and tested. Finally, in the [re]freezing step, some stabilization is re-established with new behaviors, norms and practices that satisfy the current reality (Burnes, 2004). Other theorists in management and organizational behavior fields have built on this model (Schein, 1992; Bridges, 2003; and Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995).
Srithika and Sanghamitra (2009) have identified six unlearning requirements:
- Individuals, groups or organizations identify existing knowledge
- Individuals, groups or organizations recognize the obsoleteness of such existing knowledge
- Individuals express the obsoleteness of knowledge to groups and organizations
- Groups or organizations recognize such obsoleteness of knowledge
- Individuals, groups or organizations resist or avoid the application of such obsolete knowledge
- Substitution of old knowledge by new knowledge (learning gained) (p. 70).
Unlearning is itself a volatile process that temporarily intensifies fear and resistance. Newstrom (1983) says that unlearning forces workers to jettison stability and the status quo for the unknown, unstable and unpredictable environment of drastic change and new beginnings.
According to Schein (1992), leaders must become change agents because “unlearning is an entirely different process, involving anxiety, defensiveness, and resistance to change” (p. 64). They need two sets of characteristics: the emotional strength to support others in crisis and create a sense of psychological safety, and an understanding of how to build a new organizational culture (Schein, 1992). To sustain the new organization, leaders must rebuild worker confidence, self-efficacy and competencies. To succeed in sustaining the changes, many leaders are integrating appreciative inquiry (A.I.) into the middle (moving) stage of the unlearning process.
Appreciative inquiry is a strengths-based organizational change model in which all participants in a change initiative work collaboratively to design an organization built on previously demonstrated peak experience characteristics. A.I. has been implemented in top-performing companies across the world. The 4-D Model of Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987) involves four steps: discovery, dream, design and destiny. Discovery involves a shift of the organization’s focus from what’s wrong or ineffective to what’s working well to support individuals in finding their own excellence. Interviews with employees take place throughout the organization followed by factor analysis to find the common positive drivers of excellence. In the dream step, the mission of the organization is discovered that connects all the members of the organization to a greater purpose. The design step is where all the organization’s stakeholders participate in defining what the organization will become. In the destiny/delivery step, everyone commits to the action plans that were co-created and jointly affirmed (Whitney & Schau, 1998).
Discussing A.I. 20 years later, Cooperrider said, “Organizations are centers of human relationships, and thus are linked to an infinite array of strengths … A.I. addresses three fundamental facts about human beings: exceptionality, essentiality, and equality … I wondered what would happen if we studied only what gives life to the organization” (Salopek, 2006, pp. 21-22).
Unlearning theory and appreciative inquiry are complementary approaches that can aid organizations and individuals in making successful transitions in a turbulent environment. A.I. brings empowerment and safety to the chaotic middle step, thereby increasing the chances for success and buy-in in the [re]freeze step that follows. Meanwhile, Srithika and Sanghamitra (2009) have gone so far as to match the six unlearning stages with the four A.I. steps. Scholars are continuing to define and explore how unlearning and A.I. models can create new opportunities for organizations in our highly turbulent and competitive marketplace. Unlearning will be on center stage as world economies recover, new political alliances form and educational models expand. Appreciative inquiry adoption will bring safety, empowerment and consideration of the greater good and purpose back into our institutions.
Bridges, W. (2003). Managing transitions: Making the most of change. (2nd ed). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, Perseus Books Group.
Buchen, I.H. (1998, Winter). An organizational New Year’s resolution: To unlearn. National Productivity Review, 18(1), 1-4.
Burnes, B. (2004). Kurt Lewin and the planned approach to change. Journal of Management Studies, 41(6), 977-1002.
Cooperrider, D.L., & Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. Research in Organizational Change and Development, I, 129-169.
Newstrom, J. (1983). The management of unlearning: Exploding the ‘clean slate’ fallacy. Training and Development Journal, 37(8), 36-39.
Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (1995). The knowledge creating company. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Salopek, J.J. (2006). Appreciative inquiry at 20: Questioning David Cooperrider. Training and Development Journal, 60(8), 21-22.
Schein, E.H. (1996). Leadership and organizational culture. In F. Hesselbein, M. Goldsmith & R. Beckhard (Eds.), The leader of the future (pp.59-69). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
Srithika, T., & Sanghamitra, B. (2009). Facilitating organizational unlearning using appreciative inquiry as an intervention. Vikalpa, 34(4), 67-77.
Whitney, D., & Schau, C. (1998, Spring). Appreciative inquiry: An innovative process for organizational change. Employment Relations Today, 25(1), 11-21.