Friday, March 8, 2019

The paradox of unlearning

"Repeated cycles of Learning, Unlearning and Relearning is a must for survival today!", thundered the sage on the stage at the HR conference. "Is it even possible to unlearn?", I wondered.

I am in complete agreement with the position that in an ever changing environment, we constantly need to learn new things. The question in my mind was only about the necessity and feasibility of unlearning. When I persisted with this question for a while, this entire matter of unlearning seemed to get increasingly paradoxical.  

So, what is paradoxical about unlearning? As we have seen earlier, a paradox occurs when there are multiple perspectives/opinions (doxa) that exist alongside (para)- each of which is true - but they appear to contradict/to be in conflict with one another. Now, let us look at some of the opinions about unlearning

  1. Unlearning is as natural as learning.
  1. Unlearning is simply impossible. You can't really remove something from your mind unless there is some sort of brain damage or extreme forms of mind control (like ‘brainwashing’)!
  1. New knowledge replaces old knowledge as individuals learn more; much like overwriting. It is not considered to be the same as forgetting, where information is lost regardless of its usefulness.
  1. Change in a particular behavior does not in fact remove the learning altogether; it simply reduces the likelihood of the behavior in certain contexts. Hence, the proposal that new learning ‘overwrites’ old learning is problematic.  
  1. Existing knowledge or behaviors interfere with learning and, therefore, unlearning  needs to happen before new learning can occur.
  1. Unlearning and learning occur simultaneously.
  1. The distinction between learning, unlearning and relearning is arbitrary. 
  1. Unlearning itself is very valuable. It allows us to see things as they really are. The essence of unlearning is about 'emptying' and not about 'emptying so that we can fill it up'.
  1. Unlearning should not be viewed as an end in itself. It is just an intermediate step in learning.
  1. Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we unlearn, we step outside the current mental model in order to choose a different one.
  1. We are usually unconscious of our mental models and that makes unlearning difficult. Also, we tend to view the new model through the lens of the old and that makes switching models even more difficult.
  1. We don't have to worry about unlearning. Moving towards the new learning would automatically take us away from the old learning(and hence unlearning would happen automatically). Individuals learn new ways of choosing a response to a particular situation, rather than unlearning a particular response.
So, how do we resolve this?  

Even though there is quite a bit of discussion about unlearning these days, there are few theories confirmed by empirical evidence to identify how individuals unlearn and what factors may influence this unlearning. So we have to look at other options. One such option is to look at the underlying definition of 'learning' when we talk about unlearning.

If we define learning as 'acquiring knowledge', then unlearning is not possible (in the sense that it can't be forgotten) and also not even necessary (unless the existing knowledge was wrong or misleading, in which it can be modified keeping in mind the new knowledge). When new knowledge is acquired,  the old knowledge is not erased, but maintained (‘in parentheses’) for situations where it is believed that the new knowledge does not apply.

If we look at learning as essentially a 'sense-making process' (where individuals interpret and create meaning of their experiences) and not as a 'fact gathering process', unlearning is about modifying the way we ‘make sense’ (see ‘architects of meaning’ for a related discussion).

If we define learning as 'sustainable change in behavior', then new behavior can just replace old behavior. The only case where  unlearning is required would be that of conditioned responses that interfere with learning new behaviors.  Some of these conditioned responses have roots in the underlying (unconscious) mental models. We are often operating with mental models that have grown outdated or obsolete.  It takes unlearning to see the model as only one if possibilities and not as the only possibility. So unlearning is not mainly about replacing one mental model with another; it is about having the ability to consciously chose from a range of mental models based on which is more appropriate in a given situation.

Unlearning is a process as opposed to a discrete event. The process of unlearning is about liberation from the conditioning. It involves intentional evaluation of self, task and the environment to determine if a change in the current behavior is necessary and possible. Mindfulness, ability to read contextual cues, openness to explore other possibilities and meta-cognitive ability are key enablers for this unlearning process.

It is also interesting to look at why there is so much interest in unlearning. It is probably because of the assumption that new learning can’t happen unless unlearning happens. As we saw earlier, this is not necessarily the case – except in the case of conditioned responses that create rigidity and impact learnability.  Another key reason for the interest in unlearning is the belief that unlearning is essential for promoting innovation and for enabling organizations to respond more effectively to unanticipated change or crisis events (by to recognizing and modifying previous habits, approaches and behaviors that are no longer optimal).

Unlearning can happen at both the individual (assumptions, mental models, habits, response patterns etc.) and at the organization level (beliefs, paradigms, norms, rules, procedures, strategies etc.). While the unlearning at individual and organization levels can reinforce each other, they can also happen independently. For example, organizational unlearning can occur in the absence of individual unlearning through the removal of key influencers. Yes, it is important to look at the interface between individual and organizational learning in order to better understand and manage the interactions.

In a way, constant unlearning and relearning is a wasteful process. It is more efficient to modify or re-purpose old learning where possible(like a software 'update' as opposed to 'uninstall and reinstall'). Hence, relearning is better described as refocused learning (as opposed to replacing old learning with new learning). Individuals learn new ways of choosing a response to a particular situation, rather than unlearning a particular response. The focus is on modifying the response to be more effective and not on replacing one response with another (which might not necessarily lead to better outcomes). Hence, relearning is not antithetical to learning (it can happen without unlearning) and it is in fact more like learning that is made more appropriate to the current context! 

All adult learning involves relating new information with existing information and thereby modifying the existing understanding. Hence, there is no requirement for a ‘clean slate’ or ‘empty vessel’ (unlearning!) to enable new learning. Even in case of children, it seems a bit weird to suggest that a child has to unlearn 'crawling' before the child can learn 'walking'!

If we stick with the behavioral definition of 'learning' (as 'sustainable change in behavior'), adopting a new pattern of behavior is just 'learning' and hence we can even argue that the concepts of unlearning and relearning are not really required (except in the cases of brainwashing and cognitive impairment, respectively) and that they might be even misleading! Of course, we can examine and work on any possible impediments and enablers to learning in a particular context.

Any thoughts/suggestions?

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

OD Managers and the unconscious of the organization!

"I represent the unconscious of this organization!", said the Organization Development (OD) Manager. "That is why we have so many nightmares!!", retorted the business leader. 
In this blog, we have been exploring the many hats worn by the OD Managers (see Organization Development Managers as Court Jesters, The OD Quest series and Architects of Meaning for some of the examples).
Coming back to the conversation that we started this post with, it can definitely be said that tapping into the unconscious of the organization and bringing more of that into conscious awareness is part of the OD role. As Carl Jung said, “one does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making darkness conscious”. One of the key functions of OD is to facilitate greater awareness, integration and authenticity.
Before we go deep into our discussion, let's look at a fundamental question. Does it make sense to talk about the unconscious of the organization? If we observe behavior of organizations (internal functioning and external response) and people in organizations (as individuals and as groups), there is a lot that can't be explained by purely rational models of organization behavior(that assume that that a person works to earn money and to satisfy the need for material possessions). Organization behavior appears to be mysterious, unpredictable or even irrational. It appears that our thoughts and actions are influenced also by energies that are outside our conscious awareness. Hence, ‘unconscious of the organization’ is a 'useful model' for understanding and influencing the behavior patterns in organizations ('All models are wrong; some are useful!').

In a way, the employees don't leave their ‘inner drama’ at the door when they come to work. Also groups are held together not only by formal structures but also by stories/fiction, ’group think’ or even by 'convenient collective delusions' . Some of this fiction is unconscious. Organizations behave as if they have a ‘personality’ - sustained patterns of behavior internally and externally - often referred to as the organization culture. If we look at the most popular model of organization culture (Edgar Schein's model), the deepest level of culture is that of the ‘basic underlying assumptions’ that are deeply embedded in the organizational psyche and are experienced as self-evident and unconscious behavior (and are hard to recognize from within the organization). 
Now, let's look at this question from the point of OD Managers. When they come across this kind of strange behavior  patterns in organizations the OD/HR Managers are aware that something peculiar is happening  but can’t understand what exactly is happening and why. This can cause them to feel ineffective, uninformed, and helpless in many dynamic organizational situations such as meetings, team building, and leadership interactions. That is why 'psychodynamics' of the organization (that is essentially based on the unconscious, at individual and collective levels) become useful for OD Managers for understanding, predicting and influencing organization behavior. To put it in another way, since OD is essentially about facilitating change, OD interventions often have to tap into this unconscious level of organization culture. 
The unconscious in the organization manifests in terms of ‘apparently irrational behavior’, myths, stories, metaphors, images, symbols, artifacts etc. All these can be useful starting points for exploring the unconscious of the organization. For example, understanding unconscious patterns can happen through exploration of the organization’s (defining) myth. Myths are based on the inter-subjective reality in the organization and they can be 'more powerful than history and can resist or distort facts with great tenacity'. 
Repression of uncomfortable facts, thoughts, ideas and experiences causes organization members to resist change and become trapped in dysfunctional behavior patterns. OD Manager can enable the key relationships between organization members to be more effective by revealing the hidden, unconscious and inter subjective dimensions of organization life. The collective unconscious of the organization can be influenced by the use of 'generative metaphors' (that help to alter the socially constructed organization reality) and by re-purposing the prominent stories in the organization (retelling the stories to convey a different 'moral of the story' that is aligned to the new change agenda). Hence, tapping into the collective unconscious of the organization is very useful not only for accurate diagnosis of the problems in the organization but also for facilitating organization change and renewal.
In business organizations, OD often degenerates into a series of initiatives. But at the most fundamental level, OD is about facilitating better conversations that can help the organization to better understand what really is happening and to find better solutions. Hence, giving voice to the unspoken and even the unspeakable is very much part of the OD role! Apart from enabling better solutions, it would also lead to better buy-in and ownership and avoid passive resistance. It can also be said that OD Managers are in a better position (as compared to HR Business Partners who are embedded in the different business units) to do this task.

Yes, this process of making the unconscious conscious can bring out some of the ‘uncomfortable truths’ and that in turn can create quite a few ‘headaches’ (if not nightmares) for the business leaders. This can also destroy some of the convenient collective delusions in the organization. The discomfort created by this process is most problematic during the initial period, before the fruits of the integration of the unconscious with the conscious of the organization like higher levels of integrity in the organization (in terms of integration of thought, words and deeds) and  increased creativity and organization effectiveness become apparent.That is why the OD Managers need some sort of ‘diplomatic immunity’ similar to that was enjoyed by the Court Jesters. This diplomatic immunity and some sort of ‘licensed stupidity’ (the license to ask child-like or even naïve questions) is also important for the OD Managers to act as coaches for senior leaders.
So where does this leave us? There are recurring patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that are evident in the behavior of individuals, groups and organizations and sometimes they don't make sense- especially to an outsider. Tapping into the individual and collective unconscious in organizations can be highly beneficial both for addressing dysfunctions and for enhancing creativity and authenticity in organizations. In the elegant words of Carl Jung, 'until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate'!

The OD managers (especially those who have expertise in the psychodynamics of organizations) can add a lot of value in this domain. Yes, the OD managers should develop a high degree of self-awareness, apart from understanding the psychodynamics of organizations, to meaningfully intervene. They should always keep in mind that OD is an invitation (and not compulsion) for change and that it is the responsibility of the OD Manager to help the client see the potential value in the exploration. Yes, the OD Managers also need some sort of 'diplomatic immunity' or 'licensed stupidity' to make all this work!
Any comments/ideas?