Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results

Learn how to deliver successful outcomes consistently in the workplace.

Was there a time when every decision you made delivered exceptional results in the workplace? With every challenge you faced, you instinctively knew which strategy to use. And not only that, but you also wowed your board and stakeholders with groundbreaking solutions.

But then, your performance plateaued. You were using the same strategies as before, but they just weren’t working anymore. You couldn’t understand why. As your confidence flagged, so did your team’s. You grew more and more desperate to prove you were the leader you used to be. But things only got worse.

If you’re in this situation, you’re not alone. Many leaders find their careers flagging, even if they’ve been incredibly successful in the past. This happens when you fail to realize that your old strategies have become outdated. If you’re going to reclaim your position as a great leader, you need to approach your role in a new way. And that means unlearning.

The Cycle of Unlearning is a system you can use to change your mind-set when your performance fails.

In 2010, Serena Williams was the world’s top-ranking female tennis player. But then, injury and poor health forced her to sit out the first half of the 2011 season, and her performance for the rest of the year was patchy. The following year, Williams lost to 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano at the French Open. She’d hit rock bottom.

But Williams was determined not to give up. She made radical changes to her training regimen, including appointing a new coach. By the end of the 2015 season, she held all four Grand Slam titles. Under the unconventional guidance of her new coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams unlearned how to become a tennis champion. Her gamble had paid off.

The key message in here is: The Cycle of Unlearning is a system you can use to change your mind-set when your performance fails.

Williams’s journey from defeat to triumph is inspiring for anyone with ambitious goals. But it also carries an important lesson for business leaders. Fresh off her first-place position, Williams returned to the court in 2011 by playing the way she always had. But she was no longer getting the results she wanted. This undermined her confidence, making her performance even worse. If your workplace performance has deteriorated, like Williams’s did in 2011, you need to change tactics. And that means unlearning.

The Cycle of Unlearning isn’t a training program or course – it’s a three-phase cycle that helps you let go of knowledge that no longer serves you, even if it’s brought you success in the past. This doesn’t mean dismissing wisdom you’ve gained from previous experiences. It means recognizing what’s outdated and seeking out fresh ideas and strategies.

Unlearning takes courage since you must venture into your discomfort zone by testing out new strategies. This feels risky, but it’s essential if you want continued success because we live in a time of rapid change. Knowledge is no longer something that can be passed from generation to generation, as it was for centuries. Now, it has a short expiration date, and we must learn to refresh our stock when we need to.

If you’re skeptical about letting go of strategies that have brought you success in the past, think about the companies that have stood the test of time – like Google and Apple. These companies have leaders who are willing to push themselves into uncharted waters, experiment to gain new knowledge, and pursue opportunities that inspire growth. If you’d like to join their ranks, you first need to understand what’s holding you back,

You can overcome the obstacles to unlearning by developing awareness of them.

Andy Grove – CEO of Intel – had a crisis on his hands. Market demand for Intel’s memory chips was plummeting. Unless Grove did something radical, the business was going to die. As he mulled over the crisis, Grove asked his co-worker what a new CEO might do to save the company. His co-worker said they’d move away from memory chips.

This was a light-bulb moment for Grove. He decided to do what someone from the outside would do. Immediately, he shifted the company to producing microprocessors. Instead of being wedded to a failing business plan, he looked at the situation from a new point of view and found a strategy to overcome his obstacle.

The key message here is: You can overcome the obstacles to unlearning by developing awareness of them.

Because innovation occurs so rapidly now, it’s inevitable that you’ll face a similar crisis to Grove at some point in your role as a leader. But not all obstacles are the result of external factors, like changes in technology or customer needs. Typically, when our tried and tested strategies fail, the biggest obstacle we face is ourselves.

Often, our thought patterns are second nature, so we don’t question whether they’re useful. If you want to become the kind of leader who can weather every storm, you need to be aware of the internal obstacles that stop you from unlearning.

By the time we reach adulthood, many of us have lost that childhood knack of continuously learning and being open to new ideas. We’ve lost our innate willingness to practice the trial-and-error method we used when we were young. Fear of making mistakes hampers our curiosity, especially if we’re under pressure to achieve ambitious results.

Our ego also plays a role in our capacity to unlearn. We believe that the information we already know is true and accurate, which makes us less open to other possibilities. It takes great humility to accept that our solution may not be the best one. But, unfortunately, many leaders don’t see humility as a quality they should develop.

To get yourself into the right mind-set to unlearn, follow Andy Grove’s example by being open to new ideas. When you’ve found the courage to do that, you’re ready to embark on the first stage of the Cycle of Unlearning.

The first phase of the Cycle of Unlearning is to let go of your past successes.

How often have you attended a leaders’ retreat and come back flooded with new ideas, only to revert to old habits within weeks? Why is it that these training sessions don’t bring the lasting changes you want?

The business environment is in constant flux, but – unfortunately – your neural pathways aren’t. This means that you’ll use strategies from the past, even in the face of different circumstances. And while your previous decisions might have been solid, there’s a risk they won’t work now. What you need is a system that helps you find the solution that best suits your present situation.

The key message here is: The first phase of the Cycle of Unlearning is to let go of your past successes.

Once you’ve accepted that what worked yesterday might not work today, you’re ready to begin the first phase of the Cycle of Unlearning, which author Barry O’Reilly refers to as unlearning.

The first step to unlearning is to identify a goal or challenge you want to tackle and take responsibility for realizing that goal. For example, you might want to improve the product your company makes, like a contract-free mobile phone service.

The second step in the unlearning process is to visualize your ideal outcome. What does success look like when your product meets customer needs? How will you know if those needs have been met? What behaviors will your customers demonstrate to prove that you’ve reached your goal? Write down the vision that represents the best possible outcome, without imposing any limitations on what you can realistically achieve.

The third step in the unlearning phase can be challenging. Here, you must choose courage over comfort. To find the solutions you’re looking for, you need to try something new. This feels risky because humans are wired to be afraid of the unknown. It also means accepting that you may not find the right solution straight away. Resist the pressure of making a quick decision and take the time to experiment. For instance, the first iteration of your phone service might need some tweaks before you strike a balance between meeting customer needs and turning a profit.

Once you’ve clearly articulated your goal and dedicated yourself to exploring the unknown bravely, you’re ready for the second phase of the Cycle of Unlearning.

The second phase in the Cycle of Unlearning is to relearn by creating small, specific goals.

You may have heard of the popular app that transforms lazy people into marathon runners in just six months. If you’re a non-runner, this probably sounds outlandish. But the app designers understand something crucial: huge goals can be achieved by consistently taking small steps. That’s why their exercise sessions start with just a simple ten-minute walk. Then, sessions slowly increase in duration and intensity to build fitness alongside motivation.

The second phase of the Cycle of Unlearning is relearning, and it follows a similar model to the app. In the first phase of unlearning, you’ve challenged your original mind-set. Now, you need to question your preconceptions about what’s possible – just like the non-runner does when they sign-up to the app.

The key message here is: The second phase in the Cycle of Unlearning is to relearn by creating small, specific goals.

The first step to relearning is to write an unlearn statement. Remember that challenge or goal you identified in the first phase of the cycle? Well, you unlearn statement articulates that goal in a measurable way. For example, your statement might be, “Grow market share by 10 percent in the next quarter.”

Now that you have a measurable goal, the second step is to create a plan to achieve it. This plan will involve taking lots of small steps and experimenting to find solutions. Workshop every strategy you can possibly think of to achieve your goal, without censoring any ideas. Then, identify one idea you can act on. This action should be as small as possible. Keep that marathon app in mind and begin with the equivalent of a walk around the block. Bravely take your step, then learn from the experience by reflecting on it.

Find small ways to support yourself on the journey toward your goal. That way, you won’t give up before you hit your stride. Remember that every action you take brings you closer to realizing your unlearn statement. Be sure to celebrate the outcome, even if it’s negative. You’ve gained knowledge through your idea, and that has value. Any positive outcomes will make you feel more confident in taking the next step, so you should celebrate them too.

Don’t underestimate the power of small successes. Every positive outcome – even a tiny one – will inspire you to keep working toward your goal. Before you know it, you’ll be across the finish line.

Breakthrough informs the actions you should take next, so you can move closer to your goal.

Scientist, inventor, and artist Leonardo da Vinci had a revolutionary approach to problem-solving. He wrote down questions about the big mysteries of his time. While this may not seem particularly groundbreaking now, it was in the 1400's. Scientific method hadn’t been developed yet, so asking questions wasn’t the standard way of finding solutions.

Adopting a questioning mind-set is crucial to the third phase of the Cycle of Unlearning – which is breakthrough. Breakthrough occurs after you’ve gained new information by taking small steps toward your goal.

The key message here is: Breakthrough informs the actions you should take next, so you can move closer to your goal.

Let’s look at this in action. Once you’ve taken that first small step in the relearning phase, you’ll get a result – positive or negative. For instance, in our tennis example, Mouratoglou and Williams began by improving Williams’s footwork. As a result, Williams’s speed and power improved, and this initiated the breakthrough phase. When you reach the breakthrough stage, you may not have achieved your goal yet, but you’re now able to reflect on what you’ve learned. That learning will inform the next step you take. This phase helps you evaluate what you need to do next to bring you closer to the outcome you want.

Ask questions about the successes and challenges of what you’ve just achieved and consider what you could’ve done better. By doing this, you’ll improve the overall quality of your outcome, step-by-step, because each smaller goal will be guided by the wisdom you’ve gained during the previous one.

As part of the breakthrough phase, you’ll also want to identify the behaviors that are supporting your goal. Mouratoglou used this technique by asking Williams to analyze her opponents before each match, and then develop tactics specifically for that player. This change in behavior contributed to William’s improved performance, which fueled her overall confidence.

As a leader, it’s your role to help your team connect their behaviors with the goal you’re all working toward. If your team can see how their actions are influencing a particular outcome, they’ll be even more enthusiastic about tackling the next challenge. You’ll need to harness that enthusiasm. The new knowledge you’ve gained from the breakthrough phase will lead you naturally back into the unlearn phase, repeating the cycle over and over. Because the cycle is ongoing, you’ll need empowered and energized employees so you can arrive at better and better solutions.

Now that we’ve explored the phases that form the Cycle of Unlearning, let’s find out how you can use them in the workplace.

Unlearn your management style by letting go of outdated leadership models.

If you’re a leader, your management training is probably outdated by several centuries. You may not realize this, but the model that most leaders use was developed during the Industrial Era – a time when the average worker had no formal education. They were trained to perform one job, following a process developed by their boss.

But the contemporary workplace is radically different. People aren’t just cogs in the machine, employed to follow orders. They’re the source of innovation. If your employees are just going through motions that you’ve dictated, you’ve conditioned them to follow, and this means they won’t be empowered to problem-solve.

The key message here is: Unlearn your management style by letting go of outdated leadership models.

When employees have their own knowledge, a leader’s true role is to articulate goals, and then support their team while they work to achieve them. This leadership style is the opposite of micromanaging or ruling with an iron fist. It means giving employees the authority to make their own decisions and take responsibility for the outcomes.

Once you’ve articulated a clear goal to your team, like developing technology for a streaming service, support them as they experiment by asking questions and ensuring that feedback loops are in place to mitigate risk as quickly as possible. This is particularly important when the stakes are high because it will reduce your team’s anxiety. If you have a system in place to catch any small errors before they become huge issues, your team will be less nervous about testing new ideas, which will lead to greater innovation.

Technology pioneer Adrian Cockcroft used this leadership style to foster ingenuity when he worked at Netflix as their Cloud Architect. One day, he attended a meeting with senior executives from across the retail and financial sectors. They all claimed that their innovation was failing because they didn’t have talented engineers like Netflix did. Cockcroft told them the stinging truth. Netflix leaders gave their engineers the freedom and authority to develop solutions their own way. The real obstacle the other companies faced wasn’t a lack of great engineers; it was a lack of effective leaders.

When you empower your team to arrive at solutions themselves, you’re creating an environment where ideas can flourish. Your team will feel free to explore, instead of blindly following orders. This will lead to the innovative solutions your company needs for ongoing success.

Unlearn your assumptions about your customers by engaging with them directly.

When John Legere became CEO of T-Mobile, he listened in on customer service calls for three hours, every single day. He wanted to find out what was causing customer issues, and he knew the best way to get this insight was directly from them.

Legere could have asked his team to prepare a report on customer feedback. But this would have taken time. It also would have resulted in a sanitized account of how T-Mobile products were really performing, since Legere’s managers would’ve filtered feedback into a nice, neat report. Listening into calls gave Legere an uncensored view of what his customers really thought.

The key message here is: Unlearn your assumptions about your customers by engaging with them directly.

If you’re not interacting with your customers on a grassroots level, you’re cheating yourself of one of the most valuable sources of information. Once you’ve listened to them, you can start unlearning your assumptions about what the customer wants and about your products or services. This will let you see your products with fresh eyes, so you can evaluate where they’re failing.

Elon Musk – CEO of electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla – uses Twitter to engage with his customers in person and in real-time. Musk not only listens to feedback via Twitter, he personally replies to messages and takes action to address customer concerns. So, when a customer complained that Tesla drivers were using recharging stations in California as parking spots, Musk had a new policy in place within just six days. The policy imposed a fee on any fully charging cars sitting idle in recharge stations, to discourage people from using them as a parking spot. If Musk had waited for one of his managers to report on the complaint, it would’ve taken him far longer to implement a solution, and the customer would have become more and more frustrated.

This makes listening to your customers a win-win situation. By taking feedback seriously, you improve your products while also making your customers feel supported and valued. This creates brand loyalty and turns your customers into ambassadors when they tell family and friends about the positive experience, they’ve had with you.

Unlearn product development models by involving customers as early as possible.

In 2011, the British government scrapped the development of software that would give healthcare workers access to digitized patient records. Before it was terminated, the software had cost the United Kingdom an astounding £12.4 billion. The project involved many reputable contractors. But none of them had managed to work together to overcome the obstacles they encountered. Instead, they blamed each other until the entire project fell apart.

But an extraordinary lesson in unlearning rose from the ashes of this fiasco. A team of just 30 people, led by Andrew Meyer, were tasked with creating Spine 2 – the IT infrastructure that would connect over 23,000 healthcare systems across the United Kingdom. With a limited budget and many bureaucratic hoops to jump through, Meyer had to be savvy with his resources. That meant thinking about product development in a new way.

The key message here is: Unlearn product development models by involving customers as early as possible.

So, what did Meyer do? He started by shifting his mind-set from delivering a completed project to working toward small milestones. He had health practitioners test the system while it was still being developed, so they could provide feedback, and the team could relearn. This lowered the pressure to get everything perfect before a user saw the system, which gave the team more scope to achieve a breakthrough by finding the best solutions without fear of failure. It also meant that if a small component of the system didn’t work, the team found out sooner and could fix it before developing the next component.

Meyer’s decision to involve customers while Spine 2 was being developed is an important learning point for any leader. Often, customers don’t engage with a product until it’s been launched. And by then, it’s too late. You’ve already invested vast sums of time, money, and expertise into creating your product. You’re far more likely to develop one that meets customers’ needs if you find out what those needs are before you launch.

Unlearn the idea that a product or system is complete once you’ve launched it. Until you retire a product, you should always find ways to meet customer needs or evolve with changes in technology. By being committed to ongoing improvement, you’ll adapt your products to every shift in market demand and become the leader of ingenuity. This is a true mark of continuous unlearning.

Final summary

The key message in this article:

Embracing the Cycle of Unlearning as a system will change how you think, view, and carry out your role as a leader. When you accept that the strategies you used to succeed yesterday may not serve you today, you become open to new information, possibilities, and methodologies. Your mind-set becomes expansive, helping you work toward your goals – instead of being inhibited by behavior you haven’t questioned, or aren’t even aware of. Create a work environment that values continuous innovation and empower your team to experiment. This will lead to the innovation you need and will help guarantee your ongoing success.

Actionable advice:

Ask a colleague for input about how you can unlearn.

It can be difficult to evaluate your own capacity to achieve goals, but this is something a colleague can help with. Think of something you want to achieve, then ask them on a scale of one to ten how capable you are of realizing that goal. Next, ask them to identify which of your behaviors are helping – or preventing – you from achieving that goal. Finally, work out one small change you could make to increase the likelihood of succeeding and action it straight away.

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