“In some sense our ability to open the future will depend not on how well we learn anymore but on how well we are able to unlearn.” ~Alan Kay
Seeking and integrating diverse perspectives into the ways in which we think, work and lead has very little to do with learning something new. All of us are good at getting the information we need to accomplish our goals, fulfill our objectives and get to our desired destinations. The challenge arises when that information can’t get into our thought process because there is other (often false) information clogging up the intellectual pipelines.
When many organizations design training programs around inclusive leadership and multifaceted intelligence, they focus on teaching something new, but the new can’t get in when the old is stuck and taking up too much space.
In order to learn what we need to know, we need to unlearn what we think we already know. This process of identifying and clearing the clogs in our intellectual pipelines is not complicated, but it is difficult.
I am coaching a senior executive at a large corporation, who is working on his ability to be more collaborative in his leadership style. (It was not his idea to get a coach, and he did not have much choice to participate in this process.) When we first met, he insisted that he listened earnestly to the ideas from all of his team members, but he was deeply frustrated by the fact that when he made a decision that didn’t include those ideas (even though he listened and took the ideas seriously), he was seen as dictatorial.
He was listening, but no ideas could get in because there were already ideas in his head, ideas that he thought were the best ideas. His intellectual pipeline was too clogged for new ideas to effectively work their way into his thought process. He was listening, but he couldn’t actually hear anything new.
To visually demonstrate his thought process to him, I had him type out his solutions to a particular problem and told him that all of the ideas he could consider for his decision had to fit on one page. His initial thoughts filled up about half the page. Then, I asked him to take notes during the meeting in which his team members gave their perspectives on the problem, and his task was to get all of those new thoughts integrated well into his one-page document.
When he sent me his draft, he had not deleted much of what he had initially written, and had incorporated very little of what he had heard in the meeting. When he and I discussed the draft, he told me that he could have added more ideas if he had not been limited to one page. I suggested that he could have added more ideas if he had not been limited by what he had initially written.
It was not the most pleasant of conversations, but he got the point. Unless you are willing to change what you already think, you cannot integrate new perspectives into your thought process.
You have to unlearn some things in order to learn something new. You have to release some of what you think you know in order to gain what you really need to know. Not complicated, but not easy!
Are there pieces of your intellectual pipelines that are too clogged, with what you think you know, to let in the new information and perspectives that you need to think smarter and lead better?
-By Arin N. Reeves