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In Change Management, do you Skip the Unlearning Phase?

I recently spent a few minutes reading about this on the HR Bartender site. I think this one line really captures the question at hand:

Then it occurred to me that organizations really don’t spend much time teaching unlearning.

As trainers, we often focus on helping our students add knowledge and skills, but we frequently skip right past this step, unlearning.

Before all the trainers among you get up in arms, I will point out that the unlearning steps should have started long before they showed up in front of us in a training environment. It should be part of the change management process. As Sharlyn points out, the first step to being ready to learn something new is realizing that our behavior has to change. How many times have I had students told they needed to attend training without anyone explaining this fact to them?

More than I care to count. They make for one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced as a trainer. I often refer to it as the “I’ve been doing this job the same way for 20 years, why should I change anything?” attitude. And, they aren’t wrong. They have been successful in doing the job that way for years. But now, there’s some change that will make that impossible, and no one has bothered to explain that to them until you’re trying to teach them something new.

That student may have spent years learning all the best ways to redline changes between versions of documents and bring them all together, but now the workplace uses collaboration platforms where everyone is putting their edits into the same document so that skill becomes irrelevant because we don’t work that way any longer. They are going to have to learn a new way to collaborate on documents. The first step is recognizing that the way they completed that work before doesn’t make sense going forward. If they are still stuck on the way they’ve always done it, training will not be as effective as we might like.

In my example, a trainer would be charged with teaching everyone how to collaborate using the new platform and how to work with shared documents where everyone is able to edit it and see the changes in real-time. We shouldn’t also be tasked with explaining why. That decision was already made by the same people who’ve asked us to do training and should be communicated to the users long before training starts. Someone showing up to training should, in an ideal world, come in understanding the change that is coming and why it is being made. The first steps to unlearning have already been taken and we can focus on learning.

That ideal world isn’t always reality though. We all know that too well. Good trainers can explain the why and walk students through those first steps of unlearning but it’d go a whole lot better if we didn’t have to.

Change is hard. It is also neverending. Things change. The new technology provides new opportunities. Leaders should take responsibility to explain that to their people and highlight the opportunities that change can provide. Show them how it will benefit the business.

Then send them to training ready to learn.

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