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The Need to Unlearn

March 4, 2019

Having to deal with a lot of information from different fields gives us an overview of where we stand in the big picture, but at the same time, it can restrict and sometimes confuse or shift our way of thinking. When there’s too much information, making decisions becomes more and more difficult. To think clearly, without undue influence from one perspective or another, we need to focus our thoughts rather than trust everything we know equally. Clarity comes with less information.

While learning new things often delivers higher performance and greater opportunities, it can be quite challenging. But it’s definitely not limiting. Although learning new things is hard, what’s even more difficult is trying to unlearn our existing mindsets, methods, and behaviors. We should never let them limit our success.

When Do We Need to Unlearn?

What signals tell us that we probably need to unlearn something?

  • our methods’ becoming ineffective—The first signal that you need to unlearn something typically comes when you’re using the same methods you’ve often used before, but notice that they’re no longer effective.
  • our avoiding looking at problems—When you try to avoid confronting a problem, that’s another signal that your past behaviors are not the right ones to help you achieve the outcomes you want. Adhering to your old ways of doing things can limit your ability to see other possible approaches to solving a problem.

These are classic patterns that we all fall into. When you recognize these signals, that is the time you should start unlearning your old mindsets, methods, and behaviors and begin learning new ones that enable you to achieve what you want.

Creating Success

Most of us have used certain methods that have made us really successful and given us a lot of confidence. But to go to the next level, you may need to unlearn the methods that made you successful.

When offering your expertise to help solve a difficult problem, it’s important that you eliminate your preconceptions about that problem and its possible solutions—especially if your previous approaches or solutions might not work anymore or simply wouldn’t solve the problem. But even if one of your existing solutions might be viable, removing that possibility from consideration can help you to see the problem differently. The best way to accomplish this is to unlearn all that you’ ve known that might bias your thinking.

Of course, successful people are successful because they’ve created the methods and exhibited the behaviors that resulted in their success. So successful people find it especially hard to unlearn what they know. Their thoughts might course in loops because they approach every problem with the same mindset, or they might stick simply with solutions that have worked in previous cases.

As UX professionals, we typically observe the behaviors of users or customers, then try mapping them to achieve various types of results. Constantly taking the same approach is a trap that we can all fall into. Instead, we should challenge our own thinking about what’s possible. Different behaviors can lead to the outcomes you’re aiming for, and you can experiment with new behaviors to see what works for you and what doesn’t.

Changing Behavior

The need for behavior change manifests in many organizations. To serve this need, numerous people and organizations sell different methodologies for transformation at large scale. Typically, they provide a one-pager diagram of their methodology, advising that, if you follow their exact process, you’ll certainly become a high-performing organization. They define certain behaviors and try to push them on people. But such approaches are usually ineffective because the same approach might not work for everybody.

Organizational transformations demonstrate the collective impact of the individual. Many people have to change their behavior. The problem is that we are all different—and we approach learning in different ways. One person might absorb more by reading, another by listening—or by having conversations. One person might be better at writing a report; another at interpreting one. Totally different behaviors allow people to achieve the necessary results and attain the desired outcome.

Experiment with lots of different options to find the right behaviors to enable the people and teams in your organization to achieve the outcomes you want. Only in this way can your organization become successful and achieve the breakthrough you’re looking for. This culture of experimentation and learning certainly applies to UX design and product management.

Unfortunately, people and organizations tend to get stuck, doing things in the same way they’ve always done them. But the problems they need to solve can change significantly, so the ways they approach solving problems might need to change drastically as well.

What Do We Need to Relearn?

Many of the things we might need to relearn relate to mindset—and the soft skills that enable us to succeed.

Curiosity

Curiosity prompts us to avail ourselves of opportunities to learn new things.

Once you’ve become an expert in a field, how likely are you give a task to a junior and simply say: just do it this way? That person probably has ideas about alternative ways of doing it, so being overly prescriptive in your instructions limits his creativity. When trying to get things done quickly, we often limit ourselves and others by eliminating opportunities to approach things differently.

Instead, take the time to ask: why do you think that? You might receive new information about how to approach the problem. But, even if the answer reinforces what you already believe, taking the opportunity to encounter new information was a worthwhile thing to do. There is always the chance that you might learn something new. Plus, you can test your assumptions about what they might think you should do.

Always create ways to foster curiosity. Be curious yourself and open to new information. Reflect on how that new information might challenge what you believe.

Courage

It takes courage to try new ways of doing things. It also takes courage to recognize that things aren’t working. Have the courage to acknowledge what things you’re doing aren’t working well. It takes real courage to call out that your product design isn’t successful or your team isn’t innovating the way you’d hoped. It’s all too easy to blame your customer, your team, or others. Instead, take the path of the courageous. Most true leaders have the humility to recognize failure and the courage to try again and overcome it.

Commitment

Commitment means tirelessly practicing new behaviors to try to achieve different outcomes. If you want to grow and have great experiences, you need to get out of your comfort zone. You must become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Seek environments in which you’re forced to learn and use new techniques you’ve never tried before. Always seek opportunities to learn.

Creating the Safety to Succeed

There are three types of safety that are necessary to achieve success, as follows:

  1. Psychological safety—Every team should have psychological safety. How safe do people feel about failing in front of one another? Failures should always be learning experience for an entire team, moving everyone forward. Negative comments—or even sarcastic jokes—can be really damaging to the individual who is their recipient because they raise feelings of fear. When people become fearful because others have judged them for failing, they isolate themselves and hesitate to share new ideas.
  2. Deployment safety—When teams are releasing software updates frequently, it’s safer to deploy smaller batches of code. That way, if you make changes, then realize they don’t work, you can easily reverse them. So don’t just try to come up with the next big thing. Think about how you can get there incrementally. Otherwise, when failures inevitably occur, reversing those big changes will take too much time. You might even need to design and implement a completely different solution.
  3. Economic safety—When you work in small batches, you’re investing in creating small bits of a user experience or conducting small experiments that help you to learn in a safe way—rather than risking blowing up the whole product. This also lets you learn more quickly and safely—and, hopefully, contributes to your success.

Conclusion

While your old methods might have been successful until now, you need to embrace the possibilities inherent in trying new things and, thus, the opportunities to gain new insights. With the passage of years. we all master new skills. Even though you might be very good at designing one type of solution, acquiring additional skills can have subtle impacts that improve all your solutions.

This is common in technology and design. For example, when designing or redesigning a user experience, we tend to look at what others have done or remind ourselves that we’ve created a similar solution before. But don’t be afraid to approach a problem in a different way or worry too much about the outcome. Be willing to unlearn what you already know.

We need to give ourselves the time for our design solutions to evolve, embrace opportunities to experiment more, and—especially when collaborating—be open to new ideas. This is the path to becoming truly innovative and providing true value to our organization. 

UX Expert at UBS

Wroclaw, Poland

Lindi RekaLindi provides UX services and solutions, helping companies create the right user-interface designs for their digital products, increasing their performance and usability, and simplifying the user experience. She creates wireframes and prototypes, tests design solutions, and assists in their implementation. Her empathy for users enables her to deliver human-centered design solutions that benefit both users and her stakeholders and clients.  Read More

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