Article: Adapting to change: Why don't you dis-learn?


Adapting to change: Why don't you dis-learn?

When shifting gears in your career, focus on un-learning instead of attempting to apply only what you have always known
Adapting to change: Why don't you dis-learn?

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail


It is important to ask yourself the question - what will you do differently


Stuck in the vicious cycle of forever looming deadlines with two jobs and a lot of travel, my creative juices seem to have dried up. With yet another deadline and constant reminders from Rajlakshmi, the deputy editor for this magazine, for sending in my column, I ask Agastya, my 8-year-old son if he has any suggestions.

Sagely silence and then the following cryptic suggestion:

“Why don’t you write about dis-learning?”
Huh! I probed further wondering what I have gotten myself into. For I know, once asked, he will hound me to find if I have written it. There’s another deadline I have created for myself.
I needn’t have fretted. He looks at me like “you don’t get this”. I swallow my pride and nod for him to elaborate. He in turn gives me a patient ‘ok, you silly adult’, here-you-go look and elaborates,
“Appa, see my school has changed the dance for my group. Now, I am so used to the earlier steps that I am just trying to do the same, but to a different music. I should instead be doing the new steps to the new music."
I still look at him wondering where this is going, seeing that I haven’t raised my intelligence levels, he rolls his eyes over, thinks a while and says, “You have taken on a new role, right?”
I answer in the affirmative and he continues.
“So, if you tried doing the new role the same way you did your earlier role, because that is what you know, what will happen?”
My eyes lit up… I must give it to this little fella. He really has brought home a valid point.
He was asking me if I was willing to unlearn and learn again. Was I willing to learn how to do new the trick or try the new trick with the old routine?
Phew… this is too much wisdom for an 8–year-old to be passing around.
I instantly realize that is exactly what I was doing. In my new business leader role; I was trying to behave like an HR head, because that is all I knew. It was about attrition, training and other such people-related matters that I seem to be focussing on.

There is this quote of Abraham Maslow about hammers and nails that explains it well. Here is the quote, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”

This leads to failure, frustration and missed opportunities. Worse, you believe you are working hard at doing something, just that there are no results to show.

So, what do we do differently… to learn the new steps for the new music like little Agastya.

Here are a few suggestions, we can all try.

1. Clear your mental models: Clear your head of past mental models. For example, let’s say you take on a supervisor role; don’t continue to look at this as how I would have done a particular job. That is no longer yours; your job is to get somebody to do it better than you could have. Mental model changes from doing to helping somebody do is the new step to the new music.

2. Leverage your strengths: While you clear your mental models, you should not clear your strengths. Confused? Let’s try an example. Let’s say your strength is presentation. You must leverage that strength to help your team members present their work better. As the supervisor, do not insist on getting the work done your way. Or if your strength is networking, use that to make resources available for your team to deliver quicker.

3. Ask questions, don’t tell: All of us have this urge to demonstrate to folks why we deserve the new position or job. Particularly, if it is a promotion or a new job, insecurities run high and the need to prove a point is a big need. For instance, one of your team members thinks that the metrics tracked do not get the right results… don’t instantly agree or disagree. Ask them questions to clarify. Help them arrive at their own conclusion through questioning and be willing to change your mind based on the answers they provide.

4. What is ‘different’: While you don’t have to be different, just for the heck of it, it is important you ask yourself the question - what will you do differently? If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got.

5. Be prepared to be uncomfortable: Anything new creates discomfort, bringing about uncertainty, leading to insecurity or lack of confidence. Be prepared for it, think of the time you were learning something new like swimming or music, and how eventually you did learn the ropes. The same will happen here too. Revel in the discomfort; it is a sure sign that you are learning.

Agastya is eagerly applying his gyan and dis-learning. I am trying too, what about you?
Good luck and have fun.


Elango R, is the Chief Human Resources Officer at MphasiS and author of the book “You Don’t Need a Godfather”. You can read his blog on and follow him on Twitter @agastyasays



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Topics: Watercooler, Learning & Development, Life @ Work

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