Features of the Unlearning Organization (2002)

by Dennis Sherwood

1. The day job-job doesn't get in the way

Unlearning organizations make time for thinking, exploration, innovation. They don't let the pressures of the day-job stop this.

2. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is not "the way we do things around here"

Unlearning organizations don't wait for things to break before they fix them. They are always searching for better ways of doing things, even if there is no explicit "problem" to solve.

3. The only rule is "rules are for breaking"

Unlearning organizations recognize that rules, policies, procedures, processes, are artifacts of the time they were originated. All are constantly under review and those that remain fit-for-purpose are retained, those that have passed their sell-by-date are ditched.

4. Negligence is distinguished from learning

Unlearning organizations know that "failure" is a very broad term, and embraces many things. In particular, they distinguish between "negligence" (the deliberate departure from an agreed policy) and "learning (what happens when an outcome differs from expectations). They do not condone the former; nor do they penalize the latter.

5. They Listen

To each other, to the outside world. Actively. Bosses do not finish the sentences of their subordinates; peers use their ears more than their mouths.

6. They Share

Recourses, information, people, risk. They operate in highly connected networks rather than hierarchical silos; nothing is "mine", for everything is "ours"; everyone is comfortable playing whatever roles are fit-for-purpose at the time.

7. They say "yes" more than they say "no"

Go to a meeting. Take a blank sheet of paper, draw a vertical line down the middle. Label the left-hand column "yes"; the right-hand column "no". Each time you hear the word "yes", or equivalent positive remark, place a tick in the left-hand column; likewise for "no" and its surrogates. In an unlearning organization, you will have far more ticks on the left than the right.

8. The don't rush to judge

Unlearning organizations know when to evaluate ideas, and do this only when there is a full and well-balanced view. They do not shoot from the hip, or jerk from the knee.

9. They have a wise approach to managing risk

Unlearning organizations fully recognize that innovation is all about managing risk. They also know full well that in today's business climate - and especially tomorrow's - to maintain the status quo, though comfortable and familiar, is likely to be more risky than stepping wisely into the unknown. They don't expect every innovation to succeed, nor do they place any foolhardy bets.

10.Their performance measures support innovation, rather than discourage it

Unlearning organizations have enhanced their portfolio of performance measures to ensure that they support, rather than inhibit, innovation. Even to the (unusual) extent of measuring inputs (such as hours spent on idea generation) rather than outputs (number of ideas put into the suggestion box).

11.They are very good at managing both the line and projects

"Did you hear about George?"

"No, I don't think so. What's going on?"

"He's been assigned to a 'special' project".

"Well, he's on the way out then."

That is a conversation you will not hear in an unlearning organization. Managing the line and managing projects exist easily side-by-side; being assigned to an innovation project is symbol of regard; and risk-taking is rewarded.

12. They don't force closure

Unlearning organization know when to push for delivery (for those tasks which are well-understood, and can successfully be planned with high certainty), and when not (for those tasks, like innovation, which are more open-ended and exploratory). Task-orientated completer-finishers know when to back off, and actually do it.

Copyright. Dennis Sherwood

Dennis Sherwood was educated at the Universities of Cambridge, Yale and California, and is a Sloan Fellow, with distinction, of the London Business School. He was for 12 years a consulting partner in Deloitte Haskins + Sells, and after their merger in the UK, Coopers & Lybrand; subsequently, he was an Executive Director at Goldman Sachs, a partner in Bossard Consultants, and a Vice President of SRI Consulting.

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