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Unlearning Requires Some Situational Unawareness Training

Posted in Unlearn Strategy

"Yieldylwred Be very, very careful what you put into that head, because you will never, ever get it out.”—Thomas Cardinal Wolsey

Question: What two colors are the yield sign?

Did you say yellow and black? That answer would have been correct if Marcus Welby, M.D. was still the top-rated TV show; Richard Nixon occupied the White House or NASDAQ had yet to become a leading stock market index. The yield sign, though, has been red and white since 1971. Interestingly, a large number of people—including many born after 1971 – still erroneously believe the yield sign is yellow and black.

This phenomenon demonstrates that once a thing has been learned—even something as common as the color of a sign—it can be very difficult to unlearn.

Compare this situation with the actions of computer industry executives in the 1980s who had learned about computers in the era of mammoth mainframes and were accustomed to producing their own proprietary hardware and software and then having internal sales teams market and sell the expensive products they created.

With the advent of the personal computer the rules suddenly changed and companies began relying on microprocessors and packaged software and using third parties to distribute and sell the product. A handful of computer companies adjusted but many others such as Digital Equipment, Wang and Burroughs did not because either they didn’t unlearn the old rules or were late in adjusting to the new signs.

The same situation occurred more recently in the telecommunications industry. Prior to the creation of the iPhone, providers dominated the telecom industry and dictated to phone manufacturers the terms of agreement. The creation of Apple’s multi-touch, gesture interface and “apps"–laden device flipped the industry on its head. In a matter of months, millions of people switched providers and began using mobile devices to access the Internet (with a user–friendly browser), watch videos, read books and, together with the growing universe of software applications, do everything from locate their parked car at an airport and identifying obscure birds and songs to keeping their child mildly amused with an easy-to-download “fart app.”

In each case, the signs of change were not immediately obvious but they could have been picked up on if industry leaders had engaged in some situational “unawareness” training by stepping outside their industry’s existing paradigm and scanning the environment for subtle changes in technology, consumer behavior or the competitive landscape. For example, in the automotive industry, new advances in nano-materials and battery power could lead to radical new designs; the continued growth of social networking may demand the cars of the future to maintain constant connectivity and improve the driving experience; and advances in robotics and rapid prototyping could transform both the manufacturing process and the supply chain. In each case, automotive professionals will have to unlearn what a car looks like; how it is made; what it is expected to do; and who they will have to partner with in order to build the car of the future.

Homework Assignment: Using Starbucks as a case study, indentify three emerging trends in technology, consumer behavior or the beverage/food industry that may necessitate company officials to unlearn some aspects of its current business model.

Extra Credit: Identify at least two things which have contributed to Starbucks past success but that it should consider stop doing? (Hint: In 2009, the company dropped its name from a store in Seattle and replaced it with a name that more closely resembles a neighborhood corner coffee shop.)

One thought on “Unlearning Requires Some Situational Unawareness Training”

  1. Really Nice post. I do believe the dire necessity of unlearning. In such a dynamic competitive market unlearning need to be done at faster rate than learning.

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