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Unlearning Agile is as Important as Learning

Why Unlearning Is Essential In Learning Agile

Anthony Mersino

August 31, 2023

10:17 AM

Article at a glance
    • Unlearning involves discarding outdated knowledge and making room for new ideas. It is an intentional process of letting go of old ideas and assumptions.
    • Unlearning can be difficult due to cognitive biases, entrenched mental models,  and resistance to change.
    • Improve your self-awareness around the things you need to change.
    • As coaches, we may anchor to early methodologies learned and seek only confirming evidence. Unlearning helps us stay open to better approaches.
    • As coaches we also need to be empathetic toward others when we ask them to change and let go of what they believe to be true.

What do you know about Agile that you need to unlearn?

Unlearning is a concept I first read about in Erich Buhler’s book, Enterprise Agility Fundamentals. The term unlearning caught my attention and I found it very useful. (I don’t necessarily recommend the book – at least not yet.)

Reading the book was an exercise in unlearning for me. My brain struggled to wrap itself around some of the new and controversial concepts. It forced me to admit that I might have to unlearn a few things if I want to embrace these new concepts.

Putting the book aside, let’s explore the concept of unlearning which I think has value for all of us. We may find that Unlearning in the agile context is nearly as important as learning.

What is Unlearning?

Imagine your brain as a garage filled with everything you’ve ever learned. Some things that you have learned over the years are still quite useful while others are outdated or simply incorrect. They are like the clutter in your garage. And like in your garage, you might have to get rid of some things to make room for new stuff.

Similarly, unlearning involves an evaluation process. You sift through beliefs, habits, and knowledge, deciding what’s still valuable and what’s taking up unnecessary space. By consciously choosing to “throw away” or “replace” outdated items, you’re making room.

This concept is particularly important in rapidly changing environments like technology, where old approaches and ideas may no longer be relevant or may even be counterproductive. Unlearning is not simply forgetting but is an intentional act of letting go of what is no longer relevant.

The most immediate benefit of a garage clear-out is the newfound space, allowing you to store items that you’ll actually use. Similarly, unlearning clears mental clutter, giving you the space to learn more effectively. This cleared space accelerates your learning since there’s less to sift through when integrating new information or skills. You can directly place a new tool in its rightful spot, without having to rearrange a cluttered, disorganized space.

Unlearning is Important and Difficult

There are a few other reasons why unlearning can be difficult:

Cognitive biases – We all have inherent biases and assumptions that shape how we view the world. These become ingrained over time, making it hard to let go of old ways of thinking. Confirmation bias leads us to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs which leads to a reinforcement loop.

Mental models and habits – Over time our brains form networks of associated ideas, concepts and patterns of thinking. These mental models and habits allow us to make faster decisions by recognizing patterns and applying the same response with little thought or consideration. That efficiency can also make it very difficult to see things differently or change our thought patterns.

The Perceived Cost/Benefit of Change – It can feel risky and even threatening to change. It takes emotional and mental labor and as humans, we tend to avoid mental effort when possible. Unless your current beliefs are causing significant issues for you, there may be little incentive to change.

An Example of Failure to Unlearn

I recently saw the Oppenheimer movie and really enjoyed it. I left the theater inspired to read the book behind the film, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It was awesome!

Albert Einstein 1921 Wikipedia

One of the many supporting cast members of the Oppenheimer story is Albert Einstein. Renowned for his contributions to physics and his Theory of Relativity, Einstein was considered a genius. Unfortunately, even the brilliant Einstein had difficulty with unlearning.

Einstein is perhaps best known for his Theory of Relativity. It put him on the map. He was anchored to it.

Unfortunately, when new insights like Quantum Theory were developed, Einstein struggled. He could not let go of what he knew to be true about Relatively so that he could embrace Quantum Theory which initially appeared to be incompatible with Relativity.

Rather than unlearn what he knew to be true, Einstein spent his golden years searching for a “Unified Field Theory” that would reconcile the perceived contradictions between Quantum Theory and his theories of Relativity. He never succeeded.

Einstein’s difficulty in fully embracing Quantum Theory exemplifies how even the most brilliant minds must sometimes engage in the painful process of unlearning or reevaluating deeply held beliefs to make room for new paradigms.

A Personal Experience with Unlearning

In a personal or psychological context, unlearning can mean letting go of biases or preconceived notions that hinder personal growth.

In 2002, I began to see a therapist in the hopes of improving my relationship skills and career prospects. It was transformative. At 40 years old, I was able to begin to see the mistaken beliefs I had been clinging to for my entire life to that point and begin to appreciate how much they held me back. These beliefs were learned from my parents and family of origin. It was tough work.

It wasn’t just a matter of lying on a couch and talking about my childhood to a therapist quietly jotting notes while nodding patiently. Oh boy, I wish it were that easy.

Changing my core beliefs took years of working in different therapy groups to unlearn what I thought was true about myself, my relationships, and the world. The therapy groups were a safe place for me to gain some self-awareness by interacting with other group members. In some cases, it took something of a battering ram from multiple people to get me to shift my perspective and make me aware of these ingrained beliefs that I accepted as truths. Without other people to hold up a mirror to me, I would never have been able to appreciate the toxicity of my beliefs and how much they held me back.

I’ve improved. Not necessarily “arrived” but certainly much better. One of the ways I cemented what I learned was by distilling it into my book, Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

So What Does Unlearning Have to do with Agile?

There are a few considerations for unlearning in an agile context. First is to understand our own biases and what we believe to be true.

As an example, we tend to anchor to the first approach we learn. I first learned waterfall-style development and thought that was the best way to get things done for nearly 20 years. Then I started learning about agile and gradually began to accept that there might be better ways.

When I learned about Scrum, I felt pretty strongly about it. I anchored to it and grew very attached. I tended to look for ideas and other people who agreed with me and I avoided those that I disagreed with. Like SAFe or Kanban or Disciplined Agile. I resisted change. I let my confirmation bias run amok.

Don’t we all?

The second consideration for unlearning in agile is for those we are attempting to train or coach. When we work with people who are new to agile, or any specific approach that is different than what they are using, they are going to experience the same resistance. They will fight to hang on to their existing belief structure because it is painful to let go. It is not enough to just give them the facts, we need to help them through the transition.

Which means that we need to approach them with patience, understanding and empathy. We need to come alongside them and meet them where they are.

Key Takeaways:

There are probably many things we can learn from this but I want to highlight three:

1. Improve Your Self-Awareness – It may be helpful to take stock of what you believe and why. What framework or approach are you most comfortable with, or better yet, which do you think is best? Are you anchored to the first approach you learned? Do you invest time and energy in learning about or experimenting with other approaches? How would you know if there was a better way out there that you were not aware of?

2. Be Intentional About Unlearning – Unlearning is a muscle that can be built. It is hard work, without a doubt, so approach it with realistic expectations. Expect that there will be mental labor to learn something new or accept a new idea. Pick one area to experiment with. (Check out my related post on the landscape of different agile frameworks here for ideas on learning something new).

3. Be Empathetic Toward Those We Train and Coach – As coaches we need to appreciate the difficulty of this unlearning process and have some empathy for the clients we are coaching and training. If people have spent 5, 10, or even 20 years doing things a certain way, it will be difficult to change. This could be someone who is in a leadership position because of the way that they are able to “drive” a team to get results. They were rewarded for the beliefs and approaches they took to get results. We need to hold them in positive regard, with empathy, and do our best to come alongside them and understand their point of view.

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