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Perspectives in Leadership: Learning through unlearning

August 15, 2022

On a recent episode of Pluralsight’s Perspectives in Leadership podcast, Barry O’Reilly joined the show to discuss a unique way to look at upskilling. He’s built a successful career around the concept of unlearning which, coming from an organization focused on tech workforce development, may sound strange but it couldn’t be more important. 

As Barry says in the podcast episode, “If you just stick to what has worked in the past, the world is gonna change. Technology will change. Customer demand will change. If you're using the behaviors that made you successful at a moment in time, you have to recognize that that moment will pass. And if you haven't built up this ability to adapt or anticipate or attempt or try or probe the future, you're really gonna struggle.”

Listen to the full episode:


What is the concept of unlearning?

Unlearning, as a word, may sound like backsliding. The term feels indicative of losing hard earned knowledge but, in reality, it’s a vital part of the continuous learning environment every tech organization is seeking to achieve. There is a trend in the tech space of failing fast, thereby understanding what didn’t work for your teams in order to better determine what will work. Barry prefers to look at this as, “learning fast”. It’s not repetition of failure that drives success, but rather seeking to learn quickly what channels, messages, and processes will lead to success for you and your teams. 


“Learning is an act of vulnerability. You have to recognize that you don't know all the answers. It's the pursuit of the correct answer that is actually the noble path.” -Barry O’Reilly

Unlearning is not forgetting removing or discarding your knowledge or experience. It's the conscious act of letting go of outdated information and actively taking in new information to inform your decision making in action. You don’t forget the things that led to previous success, but rather you actively focus on removing the concepts that are no longer applicable or may be limiting your growth potential. Much like a professional golfer will break down and rebuild their swing with a new coach, technologists can build more pertinent skills without forgetting the building blocks that helped them reach prior successes.


Why is unlearning important?

The act of unlearning can unlock your ability to more effectively upskill and learn new capabilities because it removes the roadblocks that exist from prior experiences. Unlearning starts by asking yourself or our teams a simple question, “Where are we failing to meet expectations?” From that question you can identify the areas where you have previously established a success metric that, for some reason, you’re no longer achieving. You can then breakdown how that initial success happened and better identify the things you’re still doing that might no longer be relevant. 

Perhaps it’s a product feature or a type or team meeting you’re holding. It can be something as massive as your lifecycle email personas or something as seemingly small as asking your team members how they would approach a problem as opposed to providing your preferred solution at the jump.

Unlearning lets you reconsider what you’ve done in the past that drove success and better understand how it may be preventing you from present and future growth.