Unlearning is crucial for change, both personal and organizational. Here are two examples of unlearning from the Apple ecosystem: one successful, and one not.
#1 The Apple Watch Workouts app
In 2017, I purchased an Apple Watch. It has improved my life in many ways. In particular, it’s become an essential tool for supporting my desire to exercise daily. The watch’s Workout app tracks my exercise. All I need to do is to tell it what kind of exercise I’m about to start, and leave the app running until the exercise is over.
To pick the right exercise, the watch shows a scrollable list. Here’s what I saw today when I tapped the app:
Right now I’m living at home, and the two workouts I do most often are my daily outdoor run and yoga. So it’s convenient that these options are the first two I see.
This happens because the Workout app learns over time which workouts I use and, to quote from Apple support: “As you use the Workout app over time, the order of workouts is changed automatically to reflect your usage.”
The Workout app learns my preferences, and adjusts its display to show me the most likely workouts first.
My environment changes
Almost every year, I vacation in Anguilla, typically for three weeks. My exercise program there is different. I don’t run (it’s too hot for me!) but I walk daily, followed by a pool swim.
After a few days, the Workout app unlearns my most common home-based exercises and relearns my new routine, replacing the top two items on the Workouts list with the Outdoor Walk and Pool Swim choices.
For the remainder of my vacation, these two options stay at the top of the list.
Alas, all good things come to an end. On returning home, the Workout app unlearns my Anguilla routine and relearns my home routine.
And if my exercise regime changes over time, due to circumstances or location, the Workout app will continue to use its learn-unlearn-relearn routine to display the most likely choices first.
I’m sure that Apple has incorporated other examples of unlearning into its products, but this is one I’ve noticed. Small thoughtful touches like this have helped Apple products and services become market leaders in a very competitive industry.
#2 Apple Mail
Apple doesn’t always get things right, unfortunately. Apple’s Mail program provides a classic example of what happens when unlearning is not an option.
Apple Mail allows you to file messages in folders, a useful way for me to organize the 94,000 emails I currently store. Trying to be helpful, the program learns where you tend to store specific kinds of messages, and after a while, right-clicking a message will pop up an option to move it to the “learned” preferred folder.
This is a generally helpful feature — except…
Once Apple Mail has “learned” where to file an email, it won’t unlearn that choice!
Furthermore, there’s no way to manually reset Apple Mail’s choice!
For example, let’s say you’ve been working with Marce, a client’s employee, for some time, so you’ve been moving Marce’s emails to a folder for that client. After a while Apple Mail helpfully offers to move emails from Marce to that client folder. So far, so good. Then Marce moves to a new company, and you continue to work with them. Now you’d like to file Marce’s emails in a separate folder for the new client. Unfortunately, no matter how many times you manually file Marce’s emails in the new client’s folder, Apple Mail will forever continue to suggest moving them to the former employer folder!
You will have to move email from Marce to the new employee folder manually every time, remembering every time not to choose the (wrong) default Apple Mail continues to suggest.
This is a drag, and a product flaw.
It surprises me that the Watch software incorporates learn-unlearn-relearn into its memory-limited program space, but Apple Mail on the desktop, where program size is not an issue, only includes the learn piece.
I’ll conclude with a few observations about the wider value of unlearning in organizations.
Most organizations need to innovate constantly, due to changing circumstances. Innovation doesn’t just involve coming up with new ideas. Innovation also requires a willingness and ability to cannibalize or destroy existing products or services; i.e. to unlearn what used to work, and relearn what is now relevant.
Building and supporting an organizational culture that incorporates learn-unlearn-relearn is, thus, essential for the organization’s continued relevance and survival. Kodak was unable to unlearn that film was no longer a viable market for the size the company had become, or relearn how to switch to a digital imaging world. Apple, on the other hand, maker of the iPod, the most successful music player, poured energy into the development of the iPhone, a whole new product area that, while eventually cannibalizing Apple’s iPod sales, made far greater profits than if Apple had stayed with what they first built.
Do you build learn-unlearn-relearn into your personal and professional life? Share your story in the comments below!
How can we work on facilitating change in our lives?
If we want to facilitate change in our lives, having a model of how change happens can be very helpful. But which model? To facilitate business change, there’s an entire industry of well-paid organizational change management consultants who use different change models. And though we may not be aware of it, we all carry around some kind of model in our head about we make changes in our life.
Some models of change are better than others
In this post I’ll describe four common change models. The first three are simplistic and sometimes misleading. In the corporate world, they have been responsible for significant employee misery. For personal use, these models have little utility.
Did I tempt you to skip to the genuinely useful change model that follows? Resist the temptation, because you may recognize one or more of the first three models in a wide variety of situations you’ve experienced. Discovering that an ineffective change model is in use can help you notice unproductive corporate and personal environments.
The Diffusion model of change
The Diffusion model of change is a fancy way of saying “shit happens”. Change simply diffuses into our lives somehow. The word “diffusion” implies that change propagates, perhaps via social contact or some other process, throughout a group of connected people. But this change model doesn’t really add much to our understanding of how change can occur.
The Hole-in-the-floor model of change
The Hole-in-the-floor model of change implies that a carefully designed, top-down, controlled process can create an instant change. This is a common model in organizations, where high-level executives meticulously plan a change “that will go into effect on January 1”. Here’s Jerry’s drawing of how this supposedly works.
Traditional conference designs also adopt this model. Somehow, the inspiring keynote will instantly change attendees’ lives for the better.
Obviously we can make plans to initiate change. The biggest flaw with the Hole-in-the-floor model of change is the unrealistic assumption that change can occur instantly. In the vast majority of cases, however, change takes time. The model also implies the existence of controlling changers who can instantly change the passive changees. Even if the changer and changee are one and the same, we all know how difficult it is to make an instantaneous change in our own lives.
The Newtonian model of change
The Newtonian model of change tries to improve the Hole-in-the-floor model by adding a sort of human physics, fancifully based on Newton’s first law of motion. The concept is that you can push people to change, and the resulting change will happen over a time that depends on how hard you push. The harder you push, the quicker the change will take place. Naturally, the Newtonian model assumes that to change in a certain direction, you must push in that direction
Unlike the Hole-in-the-wall model, this model at least recognizes that change takes time. But what the Newtonian model of change overlooks is that when you push people, they often push back, or move in a completely different direction. Like the Hole-in-the-wall model, this model assumes that you can control people by pushing them in the direction that the controllers want them to go.
Jerry Weinberg also describes a variant of the Newtonian model: the Learning curve model. In this model, an S-shaped curve replaces the Newtonian model’s linear change over time. The above criticism applies to both models.
The Satir model of change
Unlike the previous models, the Satir model describes multiple major stages of change, and what each stage of change feels like. The previous three models are clearly limited when applied to understanding how personal change happens. In contrast, the Satir model is universal; it applies to both personal and organizational change. It also suggests what kinds of interventions are appropriate in each stage.
Above is a diagram of Satir’s model of change, which I’ll briefly outline. [Steven Smith supplies a longer summary, and Jerry’s and Virginia’s books go into more detail.]
A foreign element disrupts an old status quo. Then we begin to live in chaos, and do not know what will happen next. This provokes our feeling unsettled. Such chaos continues for an unknown period of time. Eventually, a transforming idea or event allows a period of transition away from chaos, via integration and practice, towards a new status quo.
To help clarify this model, here are two examples of each of these elements, adapted from Jerry’s book.
Old status quo examples
- You have a bad heart and smoke two packs a day, but play racquetball intensively once a week to compensate.
- Your product development team has stagnated over the last few years, and really can no longer produce anything innovative.
Foreign elements examples
- You have chest pains when playing racquetball.
- A competitor announces an innovative product, and your development team has no idea how to respond.
- You start playing racquetball left-handed, and only with certain opponents.
- Your company’s old reliable product starts developing problems. Team members don’t show up at meetings or answer messages.
Integration and practice examples
- You give up smoking and racquetball and start walking four miles a day.
- The company purchases new tools to assist in product development. It also purchases training to go with the tools, and provides time for people to attend.
New status quo examples
- You discover how much you enjoy walking, and how many creative ideas you get about work problems while you walk through the neighborhood.
- All the development team members are using the new tools. Almost weekly, someone discovers a new way to use a feature and shares it with other team members.
The Satir model is useful because it delineates the major stages of change, and the human response to change. The model reveals that feeling unsettled is a natural response to perceived chaos. Keeping in mind that change is unsettling is key to devising change strategies that actually have a chance to work for human beings! (Conversely, noticing that I’m feeling unsettled is a reliable sign that something has changed or is changing in my life.)
Final thoughts on models of change
Until you understand how change occurs, and how it affects the people and organizations involved, you won’t be successful blindly applying prescriptive models of change, like the first three models I describe above. Yet again, I’m grateful to the late Jerry Weinberg, who taught me so much.
How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.
How can we successfully work with others for change and action?
During the last eight months, I’ve been striving to save a tiny liberal arts school, Marlboro College, from closure. I’ve felt compelled to do this work, not only because the school sits at the heart of rural Marlboro, Vermont, where I’ve lived since 1978, but also because I taught there for ten years (1983-1993) and have a deep affection for the College’s rare form of education.
Someone could write a book about the twists and turns in this struggle, but it won’t be me. Instead, I’m going to share three criteria I uncovered about how to successfully work with others for change and action. When I say “successfully”, I’m not talking about whether “my” side won or lost. Rather, these are pragmatic criteria that can make the process of working with other people on a social or political goal somewhat easier and more productive.
1. Be sure that fundamental motivations are aligned
Attempting to work collaboratively and fruitfully on a complex issue? Take a little time to find out whether your potential collaborators share the same fundamental motivations as you!
It’s tempting to quickly accept any offer of help. At first, all seems well. Sometimes, though, it turns out that a potential collaborator who shares your goals has fundamentally different motivations. I’ve learned that when peoples’ motivations aren’t sufficiently closely aligned, friction and disharmony eventually surface.
When this occurs, you’ll realize that a significant amount of the time and effort spent building the collaborative relationship has been fruitless.
Of course, no two people have exactly the same motivations to work together on a project. Minor differences are often irrelevant, or resolved quickly. Deciding whether fundamental motivations are aligned, therefore, is ultimately a judgment call. However, ignoring motivational differences, no matter how severe, is a recipe for disappointment and frustration.
2. Check that people are willing to work
Watch out for folks who are quick to share opinions about what should be done, but always leave the work they propose to others.
For example, during our campaign, many people made suggestions about legal grounds to sue those planning to close the school. Their ideas were plausible on the surface (certainly to a non-attorney like me). But they never offered to contact an attorney and discover whether there was indeed a legal case to make.
Those of us who did spend significant time talking to attorneys discovered that most of the proposed ideas were not good ones. Because we didn’t want to telegraph our legal strategy, it was difficult to openly repudiate the suggestions. The spate of proposals continued.
Ideas are welcome. Some supporters with good ideas simply don’t have sufficient free time to work, and that’s fine. But ultimately, someone needs to do the work of researching the plausibility of ideas and turning them into action. You may need to tolerate those who frequently opine without offering to do the work — but don’t spend too much time appeasing them.
3. Be able to work well with others in the group
There are numerous ways that folks who share common goals and motivations and are eager to work can still fail to collaborate successfully. I’ll mention a couple here.
One interesting requirement is a nuanced appreciation of confidentiality. When you’re working in an informal fluid group, you need to have a clear communal understanding of whom to trust with what. In my experience, some people don’t grasp the need for this, and don’t think through the consequences of passing on information given to them in confidence. Though I’m sure everyone’s made this mistake one time or another (I certainly have), someone who routinely breaks confidentiality is not a prime candidate for successful collaboration.
Personality clashes can be another collaboration breaker. For example, over the last eight months, a few people who had useful expertise and experience became more trouble than it was worth to work with because they unpredictably blew up at group members. Dealing with their outbursts significantly reduced the limited time working group members had available. Consequently, there was a reluctant but necessary passing of the ways.
There are, of course, many other factors involved in facilitating large-scale change. Even when a seemingly coherent group forms to address important issues, it still can be difficult to work with others for change and action. I hope the three criteria shared above help you use your energy for social and political activism more productively.
Unlearning is crucial for change.
We often think of change as additive. We become wiser by “learning something new”. What we often overlook is that changing our beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions involves unlearning as well as learning.
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read & write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”
Unlearning first requires noticing. We are skilled at habituating our circumstances, no matter how unusual. Habituation is valuable because it allows us to adapt to changes in our environment. But habituation also makes it harder to notice that we may need to change our current thinking or behavior.
Thus there’s a delicate balance, a dance, between noticing what is rather than what have become our default ways of thinking, understanding, and acting.
I have spent over fifty years unlearning what people and society told me I was and should be. I’m still on a complex journey of relearning who I am. I work to practice being me in each moment. Change work involves not only intellectual shifts and reinterpretations but also the unlearning of habitual responses to emotional experiences and their empathetic replacement.
So remember, unlearning is crucial for change!
Photo attribution: Flickr user gforsythe and Cathy Davidson
At the age of 67, after returning from a meditation retreat, I started running daily for the first time in my life. And I soon learned that the first hill is the hardest.
It was summer, and I had no idea what I could do. So I began by exploring without expectations. I dressed in my regular sneakers, some shorts, and a tee shirt. I live in a rural town with 60 miles of dirt roads, so I ran out of my home and down the 600′ driveway. Wanting exercise, I turned left on the town road and started up the hill. Way before the top I was out of breath, so I slowed to a walk until I got to the top. I ran down some of the other side, decided that was enough for the first day, and turned around and retraced my path. I had to walk up most of my driveway.
The total run and walk was a mere mile.
I wondered if I’d ever be able to do better than that.
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“Contains active cultures.” How often have you read this on the sides of yogurt containers? Well, healthy organizations contain active cultures too.
Active cultures — not just for yogurt any more
Just as there are hundreds of different strains of probiotic cultures, there are many ways to think about organizational culture. For example, you might focus on descriptive approaches: an organization’s core beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions about “what is” and “why is”, plus customary ways of interacting. Or, you could concentrate on a behavioral approach: how an organization consistently does things.
Unfortunately, in many organizational cultures the descriptive culture isn’t congruent with the behavioral reality. Ultimately, however you define organizational culture, what interests most people is changing it, hopefully for the better.
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“You can’t make people change. But you can create an environment where they choose to.”
—Seth Godin, Leadership
Change is hard. And you can’t make people change.
However, meetings have tremendous potential to change lives. Attendees have something in common: a profession, a passion, a shared experience together. They are with people who, in some way, do what they do, speak the same language, and face the same challenges.
What an opportunity to connect with like-minded souls, learn from each other, and, consequently, change one’s life for the better!
Unfortunately, most conferences squander this opportunity. Learning is restricted to broadcast-style lectures, Q&A is often more about status than learning, and attendees have little if any input into the topics and issues discussed.
Peer conferences support change
The peer conferences I’ve been designing and facilitating for 29 years are different. Yes, you can’t make people change. But, as Seth Godin points out, you can create an environment where they choose to!
Peer conferences create an optimal environment for supporting attendees in the difficult work of making changes in their lives.
Peer conferences do this by providing a safe, supportive, and participation-rich environment that includes the freedom to choose what happens.
- A safe environment supports attendees taking risks: the risks of thinking about challenges and issues in new ways.
- The supportive environment of a peer conference provides process tools that allow attendees to freely explore new possibilities.
- A participation-rich environment ensures that attendees are likely to connect with peers who can help them or whom they can help, thus building networks and new capabilities in the future.
- The freedom to choose what happens at a peer conference allows attendees to collectively create the meeting that they want and need, rather than be tied to the limited vision of a program committee or the vested interests of conference stakeholders.
These are the core design elements of peer conferences that make them so successful in creating change. Their very design maximize the likelihood that participants will choose to make useful and productive change in their lives.
I recently came across some principles for “making large scale change happen“. I think they’re worth sharing.
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Ask attendees why they go to meetings and their top two responses are to learn and connect. Remember kids that ask a question, and when you answer it they say “why?”
“Why can’t we go outside?”
“Because it’s raining.”
“Well, water’s coming out of the sky.”
So be that annoying kid for a moment and ask: “Why do you want to learn and connect?”
If you play enough rounds of the why game, and ignore the unprofessional but possibly truthful answers — for example: “I’m hoping to get to know an attractive colleague better”; “My boss said I had to and I need a pay raise”; “It’s been too long since I ate fresh Maine lobster” — you will find that the core motivation to go to meetings is to change in some useful way. Change how you see things, and, most important, change how you do things: i.e. behavior change.
So now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s review what Harold Jarche, a veteran educator in the Canadian Armed Forces and now a leading consultant on workplace learning, has to say about the value of public speaking [emphasis added]:
“I do a fair bit of public speaking. But I doubt that much of it has changed anyone’s behaviour. I may have presented some new ideas and sparked some thinking. With a one-hour lecture, you cannot expect more. Yet a lot of our training programs consist of an expert presenting to ‘learners’. Do we really expect behaviour change from this? That would be rather wishful thinking. Learning is a process, not an event.”
“To learn a skill or get better at one you have to practice. Deliberate practice with constructive feedback is the key for long-term success.“
“I conduct face-to-face workshops as well as online ones. For my on-site sessions, usually 1/2 or a full day, I try to cover the basics and the key concepts. We do a few exercises to get people thinking differently. But I don’t expect significant changes in performance as a result of one day together.”
—Harold Jarche, no time, no learning
Like Harold, after years of running meetings and workshops I’ve learned that the likelihood creating permanent valuable behavior change increases as a power of the time spent together. By “together” I don’t mean listening passively to an expert talk. I mean working together as a group to learn new skills and approaches and ways of thinking and practicing with constructive group and expert feedback.
We’ve all heard we should be doing these things to maximize the value of our valuable time together — but very, very few of today’s meetings involve even a smattering of facilitated deliberate practice with constructive feedback.
When you think of all the expensive time we continue to waste doing things we’ve been doing for hundreds of years which we now know don’t work — well, I think tragedy is an accurate description of what routinely passes as a “meeting”.
Change is hard. We now know that social production is the way to maximize learning that leads to significant, valuable, long-term change. At meetings, the instantiations of social production are facilitated workshops run by and/or with content experts. That’s what we should be doing.
Not lectures from experts. Stop wasting valuable time at meetings doing that!