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Help old habits die easier

A "stop-doing" culture frees employees from embedded routines and perspectives, which makes room for innovative thinking.

Innovation isn’t just a matter of rolling out groundbreaking products; it includes reinventing routines, questioning assumptions, and finding new approaches to old problems. This process of shedding old organizational structures has been termedunlearning by some researchers.

People are creatures of habit, and getting them out of their comfort zone to “unlearn” something isn’t easy — especially when things already seem to be going well. This difficulty appears regularly in the workplace, where managers and employees are loath to tinker with proven formulas or processes, going by the mantra “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

People are creatures of habit, and getting them out of their comfort zone to ‘unlearn’ isn’t easy.

But in this fast-paced business landscape, yesterday’s best practices can quickly become today’s outdated thinking, and plenty of big-name companies have gone bankrupt by staying too long in their comfort zone.

Take Kodak. Top management famously failed to appreciate the game-changing nature of digital photography, and by the time company executives tried to unlearn their core business models and existing assumptions about film, it was too late. Similarly, Blockbuster Video turned down a partnership offer from a then-emerging Netflix, preferring to stick with a focus on the rental video market rather than experiment with a new strategy — a move that contributed to the company’s collapse in 2010.

How can companies break out of the comfort zone and start the unlearning process? A new study provides managers with a framework to help their companies intentionally discard obsolete, or soon-to-be obsolete, knowledge and processes, and introduce a “stop-doing” culture. Over a two-year period (2016–17), the authors conducted in-depth interviews with department heads, team leaders, and rank-and-file employees at 10 different firms, supplemented with firm data. In 2018, the researchers also interviewed consultants to get an outside perspective on the organizations’ unlearning efforts.

The authors identified resistance to changing the status quo as one of the biggest barriers to establishing an unlearning culture — and not just in the executive suite. After all, many employees invest significant time (and emotion) in carving out a safe, productive place at work. The pressure of daily routines is also a hindrance to unlearning established patterns: Keeping up with the inbox isn’t often conducive to innovative thinking.

Indeed, unlearning occurs most commonly when firms face internal or external crises, forcing them to confront their entrenched ways. But a more valuable stop-doing culture takes root when times are good, the authors suggest, enabling firms to identify and arrest problems before they spread. To that end, they identified four ways managers can promote and foster unlearning practices at their firms.

1. Create situational awareness. Employees must be encouraged to look skeptically at the structures in place and identify irrelevant or outmoded knowledge and systems. This prompting typically (and unfortunately) comes from the top down, the authors found, when managers deliberately rupture routines, create a sense of urgency, or construct an artificial crisis, thereby giving employees a chance to reflect and improve on their patterns.

It’s crucial for employees to feel involved in the unlearning process so that changes don’t just happen from the top down, but rather grow from the bottom up. Leaders must help employees see breaks with entrenched processes in a positive, exciting light.

2. Provide space to disengage from routine. To break with old routines, employees must be given the time and space to work without established protocols. Indeed, many companies known for innovation are also famous for offering employees game rooms to help them relax, flexible work schedules so they can pursue stimulating activities, and other perks to keep them from falling into a rut.

But companies don’t need to put ping-pong tables in every conference room to help employees unlearn: One firm in the study has its employees clean their desks once a week and encourages them to throw away old documents or anything that counts as “mental weight.” (Employees confirmed to the authors that this practice helped them keep a fresh perspective.) Another firm holds bimonthly “developer days,” in which R&D personnel can pitch new ideas in a conference-like setting away from the daily grind. One furniture manufacturer decided to upend its design strategy by sending its employees to work in startups, coworking spaces, and business incubators, instructing them to adopt the outlook of an entrepreneur.

3. Forgive mistakes. Just as employees need space to rethink their routines, they must also be given room to fail. Asking employees to dispense with tried-and-true methods inevitably involves some trial and error. Introducing an error-forgiving culture, the authors suggest, allows for the exploration and exploitation of new ideas without employees having to worry about upsetting a manager, or worse, having failure count against them in a performance review.

One consultant told the researchers about a firm that had trouble shaking up established hierarchies and introducing a looser, less formal culture. Instead of punishing workers who weren’t falling in line with the new way of doing things, managers took a symbolic stand: They banned suits and ties. Their message immediately came through and workers began unlearning their rigid ways of working.

4. Don’t let bad habits resurface. Keeping employees from lapsing into old routines is a big challenge for managers. Sometimes they need to get rid of stimuli that trigger employees’ former impulses, by, for example, rearranging desks, blocking certain procedures, or nixing terms or phrases that are associated with the old way of doing things.

The authors relate the story of a firm whose founding CEO exerted a lasting influence on the business even after he retired. The new management team finally invited in consultants for advice on how to unlearn all the established protocols. The consultants were struck by the fact that pictures of the founder still loomed over workers’ shoulders, seemingly continuing to watch over them and judge their ideas. Removing these artifacts was the first step in breaking the employees’ mental bond with the past.

“What we should stop doing is just as essential for future success as what we should not forget or continue to do,” the authors write. “Especially when situated in a dynamic environment, unlearning enables organizations to adapt quickly to market environments, customer demands, and trends.” Equipped with the four steps to move out of the comfort zone of embedded routines and ideas, companies can be sure that best practices don’t turn into obsolete thinking.

Source: “Introducing a ‘stop-doing’ culture: How to free your organization from rigidity,” by Adrian Klammer, Thomas Grisold, and Stefan Gueldenberg (University of Liechtenstein), Business Horizons, August 2019, vol. 62, no. 4

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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