spiral staircase from frog view

Unlearning: the key to unlocking an agile, adaptive workforce

As we transition into the “next normal”, unlearning will have to shift to the top of an organisation’s priority list. Because, in order to thrive in the workplace of the future, businesses will need to rewire, reset and reconfigure certain working practices and activities. Trying to simply transplant old ways of working onto the next normal won’t be enough.

And after the next normal, there will be another next normal and another – change is constant. But adapting to change is never easy and that is because people need to first actively unlearn old habits that may have served them well for many years but are now no longer relevant.

But how do you implement unlearning into your learning strategy? How do you ensure behaviour change takes root?

What is unlearning exactly?

To illustrate the concept, we’ll take an example. If I ask you to picture a dinosaur. What do you see?

Chances are you’ll have imagined a scaly reptilian like creature. You probably didn’t imagine something like this…

A feathered dinosaur

Even though, in the 1990s, we discovered that many species of dinosaur were actually feathered, the image of the scaly reptilian creature remains prevalent in our minds. Because unless we make a conscious effort to give up old, outdated information and start embedding the new, our newfound knowledge simply doesn’t stick. The same is true for skills and behaviours. We have to make an active decision to rewire and update our knowledge, behaviours or skills.

One quick note, unlearning is not forgetting. Forgetting is knowledge or behaviours slipping from our consciousness, only to re-surface later if called upon. Unlearning is the active process we move through in order to adopt new information, behaviours or skills.

So how can you ensure your learners are not only absorbing new skills but also unlearning old behaviours as they go? Here is a simple three step model to get you started on integrating unlearning into your learning strategy:

  1. Recognise that the old mental model is no longer relevant or effective

    This is potentially the most challenging step as people tend to be extremely attached to their existing ideas and unwilling to change. It’s the sunk-cost fallacy. Having invested considerable time believing something, or doing it in a certain way, we’re reluctant to switch and start again. The key here is to first get the learner to reflect on their current behaviours or values. A great technique for this is utilising a “test then tell” approach or by starting a course with a self-diagnostic. These shine a spotlight on current thinking and allow the learner to gain a new perspective on their values or skillset. Through this self-reflection, they come to understand the reasons why their existing skills or behaviours may be outdated, and are then far more receptive to change.

    If you’d like to learn more on this topic and about overcoming and utilising your learners innate biases within your learning and development, check out our recent LTDX 2.0 seminar: Moving learners from thought to action.

    workplace desk with magazine, plant and desktop

  2. Locate the new way forward

    Once learners are willing to change, it’s about guiding them away from the old and towards the new. This is about the learner gaining distance and perspective: resetting the way they think. A crucial step here is increasing learner investment and nurturing ownership in the new solution. Investment comes from realising the benefits: the time and effort they can save; the rewards they can gain. Ownership comes from choice and flexibility, but being there to provide support when needed, to guide them through this transition and ensure they don’t get lost along the way.

  3. Embed the new mental models

    But it can be very easy to revert back to old ways and too often we neglect the maintenance needed, undermining all the effort that went into steps one and two. So here learners need behavioural triggers or nudges to help them keep on track. Reminders or activities to re-enforce the hard-won behavioural change.

Our career adaptability and skills development platform, Create Your Own Future, includes all these principles of unlearning and behavioural change. When it comes to this third step of embedding that change, several techniques are used. The individual is provided with their own personalised dashboards, which works as a hub to embed the learning. The learner is in the driving seat, able to track their progress, set goals and review achievements. Alongside this, the platform sends alerts to the learner, nudging them when needed to keep the process going. And, if individuals are struggling, managers and advisors can see that and target their support and guidance where people need it most.


As we make the move to the ‘next normal’ businesses need to support employees to embrace change. This means in part, unlearning how “things have always been” and moving toward “how things can be”. It will require conscious effort, commitment and support. But the payoff is an agile workforce that can respond and react to change, keeping your organisation fighting fit for the future of work.

To find out how unlearning is like learning how to ride a bike (backwards) check out our seminar.

If you would like to explore how you can implement unlearning into your organisation’s learning strategy – get in touch!