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The path to unlearning: transforming individuals and organizations

People tend to stick with their current beliefs and methods as long as they seem to be working reasonably well. Similarly, organizations often stick to their ways of doing things, especially if they've been successful in the past—even if they're not successful anymore. However, when the environment changes, it becomes necessary to let go of outdated practices and get rid of old or misleading knowledge. (Klammer & Gueldenberg, 2019)

What is organizational and individual unlearning?

Organizational unlearning is the process of "realigning organizational values, norms, and/or behaviors through adjustments in cognitive structures, mental models, dominant logics, and core assumptions" (Cegarra Navarro and Cepeda Carrion, 2013)

However, we cannot talk about organizational unlearning without highlighting individual unlearning. Understanding organizational unlearning requires first understanding unlearning at the individual level. Individual unlearning occurs when someone realizes their knowledge is outdated or no longer useful and involves consciously stopping certain routines associated with that outdated knowledge.  Collective unlearning stems from individual unlearning. While the reverse may not always be true, organizational unlearning relies on individuals unlearning at the individual level. Often motivated by personal reasons due to changes in the environment, individual unlearning spreads to group dynamics, facilitating group unlearning, and eventually impacting the organizational level, promoting organizational learning.

Is unlearning easy?

Definitions about unlearning often talk about getting rid of old information to make space for new things. But they don't quite match how people really think and act. We can't just delete old thoughts and behaviors like machines can. Our brains store old information ready to come back when needed. So, instead of just stopping old habits, it's more important to look at what we're doing now. Unlearning is most helpful when it's connected to learning new things. (Visser, 2017)

What is the role of emotions in the process of unlearning?

Thinking about things differently, changing how we see them, and asking new questions can really shake up how we see ourselves and our world, both at work and in our personal lives. This kind of deep thinking can stir up strong emotions like feeling unsure or uncomfortable. So, it's important to have a safe and supportive environment to help people through this process without feeling overwhelmed or confused.

While positive emotions such as experiences of joy, curiosity, or hope can make us more open to new information and willing to challenge our existing beliefs, unlearning often involves confronting ideas that were once comfortable or secure. This can lead to negative emotions like sadness, frustration, or even fear.

What's more at stake?

Mental models are our ingrained assumptions about the world. They can be very helpful as shortcuts to understanding situations, but they can also be outdated or inaccurate. These unconscious biases can make it difficult to recognize the need for unlearning and hinder our ability to see things from new perspectives.

Mental models are often linked to habits of thought and behavior. For example, if you have a mental model that associates a certain group of people with negative stereotypes, it can be challenging to break the habit of making judgments based on those stereotypes

What can we do?

Once we become aware of our mental models, we can start to identify any biases that might be influencing them. This awareness is the first step towards challenging those biases and opening ourselves up to new information. Also, by actively seeking out information that contradicts our existing mental models, we can begin to build new, more accurate models that reflect reality better. This process requires critical thinking and a willingness to be challenged.

In "Unlearn," Barry O'Reilly suggests that to achieve success, we must let go of past strategies. Unlearning involves stepping out of our comfort zone and exploring new approaches. O'Reilly introduces the Cycle of Unlearning, consisting of three phases (O'Reilly, 2019).

  1. UNLEARN: Recognize outdated mental models by increasing self-awareness. Look inward and outward to identify limiting beliefs and blind spots. Ask reflective questions to understand what holds you back and why you want to change.

  2. RELEARN: Discover or create new models suited to current contexts. Challenge assumptions and consider how to adapt to new realities. Explore possibilities and develop intentional strategies for change.

  3. BREAKTHROUGH: Embed new behaviors until they become natural. Embrace transformation by moving beyond old patterns of thinking and behaving. Measure success, anticipate challenges, and continuously learn from experiences.

In essence, unlearning requires courage, openness, and a willingness to embrace change. By letting go of past strategies and exploring new approaches, individuals and organizations can adapt and thrive in an ever-changing world.

What would you like to unlearn?


Cegarra-Navarro, J.G. and Cepeda Carrión, G., 2013. Implementing telemedicine technologies through an unlearning context in a homecare setting. Behavior & Information Technology32(1), pp.80-90.

Klammer, A. and Gueldenberg, S., 2019. Unlearning and forgetting in organizations: a systematic review of the literature. Journal of Knowledge Management23(5), pp.860-888.

O'Reilly, Barry. 2019. Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results. New York, McGraw-Hill Education

Visser, M., 2017. Learning and unlearning: a conceptual note. The Learning Organization24(1), pp.49-57.

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