Organizations that were successful in the past do not necessarily succeed into the future: history has proven this, and the COVID-19 crisis is continuing to prove it today. But the problem, says business advisor Barry O'Reilly, is that high-performing individuals, especially leaders, tend to believe that the strategies—and even the character traits—that made them successful in the past will continue to make them successful in the future. Conversely, adhering to those old glories can hold a person, and an entire organization back, preventing them from adapting to new situations and advancing.
"Senior leaders have a sunk cost fallacy about their skills," he observes. "The biggest inhibitor for high performing individuals is unlearning the mindset and behaviors that have made them successful in the past but now limit their success."
Identifying the behaviors to be unlearned
Speaking at a Qualtrics seminar earlier this week, O'Reilly described a framework for encouraging flexibility and innovation by unlearning old mindsets and behaviors, from top leadership down to the rest of the organization. He highlighted four types of situations that can be used to identify those unproductive behaviors:
Situations where the individual has not achieved the desired outcome
Situations where the individual is unable to meet his/her own expectations
Situations that the individual is struggling with, or outright avoiding
Situations where the individual has tried all approaches but failed to break through
All of the above are signals that something needs to be unlearned. By analyzing the situations, it's possible to identify the changes that are needed to actually achieve success.
Start small and keep moving
The needed changes can often feel overwhelming or simply insurmountable, sometimes because the behaviors that must change are close to the heart of one's own identity. Hence, O'Reilly recommends starting with "small, safe steps" that can be done incrementally, without major upheavals.
More importantly, the steps have to be taken regardless of uncertainty. "The natural reaction to uncertainty and unknowns is to stop, pause, wait, and see what happens. And yet this is the sure-fire way to fail," he says—for both individuals and organizations. "The way to succeed is to act and learn your way through it."
One further advantage of small, safe steps is that it's easier to bring others along into the unknown, and to thereby slowly create the expectation that the effort to unlearn and relearn is not just a solo venture but a "joint problem-solving expedition" for the entire organization.
Get others to take action
For any organization, unlearning, relearning, and transformation is a group endeavor and cannot rest solely on the leadership alone. Bringing others on board requires several conditions to be met: firstly, offering an end goal that everyone can get behind. This is especially the case during COVID-19, when the challenge is global and organizations have to find a role in the bigger picture.
Secondly, drawing a clear distinction between outcomes and outputs. If outputs are made the end goal, people will focus on those, leading to what O'Reilly describes as "massively perverse behavior" that can have the entirely opposite result to what was envisioned. Even when that behavior does not backfire, it still leads to the wrong kind of indicators being tracked, he says: activity is measured rather than long-term systemic outcomes. "This is the reason so many transformations fail: people are monitoring activity," he says. "Often when we optimize for easy to measure things we create more problems than we realize."
And thirdly, creating an environment that provides both safety in failure and satisfaction in success. Safety to fail means that people will not be afraid to indicate when they are behind or in need of help, so that information about progress is accurate and people are able to get the resources they need; satisfaction in success means that people are able to see that their contribution is having an effect, and that they have a sense of belonging to a team that is making a difference.
Some characteristics that help with unlearning
An individual's ability to unlearn and relearn frequently hinges upon three main characteristics: curiosity, ownership, and commitment to discomfort. Curiosity, for high performing leaders, often needs to go hand in hand with humility: for example, on seeing a junior employee approach a problem in a radically different manner from the norm, curiosity might mean that the leader does not dismiss the approach but gives it consideration instead.
Ownership, similarly, could include taking responsibility for the results even if they are not as desired, while commitment to discomfort would mean not shrinking back from self-examination and change, no matter how unflattering it appears. "It's not the chocolate bar's fault that you can't lose those extra five kilos," O'Reilly quips.
Ultimately, tone from the top plays a significant role in unlearning, relearning, and innovation. If a leader is able to role model the character traits and behavior that are most conducive to adapting and advancing, he or she will be able to inspire the team, then the group within which the team works, and finally the entire organization.