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« The necessity of asking questions in radical management | Main | Down the JetBlue Chute in the Age of Social Media »

August 14, 2010


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Ralf Westphal

There is a whole dicipline devoted to unseeing/unlearning: it´s NLP (neurolinguistic programming).

But they call it "working with belief systems"; and unlearning takes place through reframing, if I´m not mistaken. (Here´s some literature:

Also check out Byron Kathy´s "The Work",

Unlearning/unseeing is changing what we believe to be true. If we can give up a believe, we´re open to adopt a new view of the world.


Steve Denning

Ralf--Thanks for these links. I'll check them out. Steve

Viv McWaters

I missed the twitter talk about this - but glad I found your article. I use a similar model when facilitating groups, calling it 'disruptive' facilitation. I no longer hold to the premise that facilitation is about making things easy for groups. All that does it make it easy for people to perpetuate old habits and behaviours. As you point out, language is so important. I use improv games to surface how people really think and behave. The games are brilliant for surfacing many of our assumptions and prejudices. This, I think, is the first step in unlearning.

Steve Denning

Viv--Great points. Luke Hohmann's Innovation Games is a related source: using game to spark unlearning and new learning:

Shawn Callahan

I agree Steve, learning to be is the crux unlearning or unseeing. Our deepest knowledge comes from what we experience.

This example is a good illustration of what I mean. Last year I was facilitating a workshop on collaboration for a group of senior academics. I mentioned that there are a couple of important behaviours necessary for effective collaboration: the ability to speak truth to power (with good intent and respect); and the need to make and keep promises. As I describe these two behaviours I could see a woman at the back of the workshop shaking her head in utter disagreement. So I stopped what I was saying and asked whether she would like to share what she was thinking. She blurted out that there is no way anyone could speak openly and honestly to a professor (her belief). And that she had done that once in her old department and had to move departments (her experience and story).

This woman had learned that speaking up was a bad move and she'd a strong story in her head that told her that she should avoid it at all costs.

Robert Keagan calls this an Immunity to Change (the title of his last book) and says that an effective way for this person to change is if she can replace her old story with a new story. And to do that you need to help her have new experiences that result in a different outcome. So to help a person or group or organisation to change, leaders, helpers, facilitators should create new experiences that have the new ways of being.

(This is very much like what Jerry Sternin did to help reverse malnutrition among Vietnamese children in the '90s )

And when new experiences are hard to create then go to the second best way to learn from experience, by telling effective stories.

Johnnie Moore

I liked your story Shawn. Intriguingly, you did support that woman in doing precisely what she said she couldn't do - in that situation she felt able to challenge your authority.

Shawn Callahan

Hi Johnnie, yes, she was obviously less concerned about outside facilitators than professors.

Adrian Segar

Steve: Finding my way here via John Seely Brown's post, I'm intrigued by the parallels between your comparison of traditional and radical management and the comparison of traditional and radical conference design that I describe in my book "Conferences That Work".

Substituting "conference participants" for "clients" in the table provides a set of contrasts surprisingly similar to those I've written about.

Your article validates and illuminates the challenges I face in my work to educate event professionals about alternative ways to design meetings and events. Thanks for that!

Steve Denning

Adrian, I agree on the parallel between managing a conference and managing work. In fact, I had written about this last year at Your book sounds very interesting. Steve


Hi Steve, I agree with you that 1. Humility. 2 Curiosity. 3. Listen . 4. Story - are helpful to make people 'unsee'. And that it is difficult (almost impossible) to let go tacit knowledge in which we have strong emotion / feeling.

I would like to add that the starting point for 'unlearning' is disconfirmation. That is event that does not hold true with our underlying assumptions, beliefs, and values. For example: I believe that paying people well is enough to guarantee his / her loyalty. When he / she resigned to join a rival company on a lower pay, then I'll get disconfirmation. Disconfirmation will motivate me to 'let go' of my knowledge and learn new knowledge.

Does this makes sense?

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Steve Denning

Hi Roanyong,
Yes, it makes sense to a certain extent. An encounter with a "disconfirmation" can be the spark that sets off unlearning. But all too often, it doesn't happen. The employee left for a another firm at a lower salary? "That was because that guy was a loser all along and couldn't make it with us." If we see the apparent disconfirmation through the spectacles of our existing assumptions, then we can ingeniously adjust the world to fit our assumptions! It's called the "confirmation bias". So unless there are some of those other elements -- curiosity, humility, listening -- we may not learn from the disconfirmation. Steve

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