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The curious power of unlearning

Barry O’Reilly’s masterclass on his unlearning system


“Disruption does not actually apply to organisations. The truth is it applies to individuals.” Barry O’Reilly

If you’re struggling to solve a problem but unclear why, the ‘unlearning system’ could be for you. People get upset when they’re told to unlearn, says Barry O’Reilly. The author of bestseller Unlearn told this week’s masterclass that unlearning wasn’t a negative concept.

Instead, it’s a system or process or moving away from outdated concepts, and taking in new information to inform effective decision making and action. He used the example of Serena Williams’s comeback under new coach Patrick Mouratoglou. Habits that no longer served her were stopped and replaced with new ones.

“We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop [doing].” – Peter Drucker

How do I know what I need to unlearn?

You know you need to unlearn when you are:

·       Not living up to your expectations

·       Struggling to solve a problem but unclear why

·       Aware your secret sauce suddenly doesn’t work

·       Avoiding a situation

·       Trying everything you know and still falling short

This is when you need to cycle through Unlearn-Relearn-Breakthrough-Unlearn

Where do you start?

You need to start small. Start with behaviours you can role model in your organisation. That will inspire your team and eventually roll out across the organisation.

Characteristics you must cultivate in order to unlearn:

·       Curiosity – being open to new ideas

·       Ownership – not blaming others if you are not getting the results you want

·       Commitment – sticking at things 

·       Being comfortable with being uncomfortable

·       Creating safety to succeed – start small so it is safe to fail

Remember the mantra: Think Big. Start Small. Learn Fast.


Select a challenge you wish to tackle by owning it. Ask yourself “Where am I experiencing a feeling of being stuck?”

Write a story of success as a press release for yourself. To get yourself inspired, write your vision into a press release that shows the outcomes a couple of years into the future. Be bold.

Create an unlearn statement: “I will unlearn [this challenge] before [this constraint]. I know I have unlearned when [list of outcomes – preferably in terms of rate or ratio – will occur to demonstrate we have addressed the challenge.”


For a client whose challenge was a team afraid to make decisions, and so deferred to her too often, the unlearn statement read:

I will unlearn decision making before March 31 (three months time). I know I have unlearned when:

·       100 percent of decisions are safe to fail.

·       100 percent of my direction is what is to be achieved with context of why it matters.

·       0 percent of my direction is how to achieve it – the accountable individual will decide.

·       0 percent of teams I lead demonstrate learned helplessness for their decision making responsibilities.


Relearning is all about behaviour design. Trained in the BJ Fogg Behaviour Model (Behaviour = Motivation, Ability, Prompts), Barry says the key is to start with something really easy to do.


Ask yourself

·       What aspiration or outcome did you write down?

·       What behaviours cold lead you to that aspiration or outcome?

In the example of the client whose team wouldn’t make decisions, she changed her behaviour in a small way by refusing to make any decisions on their behalf for a whole day. 

Start tomorrow

So, today or tomorrow, ask yourself ‘what could be a small, uncomfortable behaviour I can adopt?’

Suggested timeline:

Tomorrow – Share your unlearn challenge with your team.

1 week – Do a lunch and learn for your team; check in with an accountability partner; have a coaching phone call with your facilitator; coach your team to write unlearn statements.

1 month – Complete your action learning review and share it; start a weekly Unlearn accountability group a the organisation; Implement ‘after action learning reviews’ for the team.

3 months – Begin a new unlearning challenge

6 months – I will…….

“Knowledge grows and simultaneously it becomes obsolete as reality changes. Understanding involves both learning new knowledge and discarding obsolete and misleading knowledge.” – Bo Hedberg

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