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Within the AQai framework there is a dimension called Ability.  Ability assesses the skills that you can develop to be more effective in your adaptability and one of those key skills is Unlearn.  Unlearn may feel a very strange term.  Let’s explain what Unlearn really means.

Learning v. Unlearning

We’re all familiar with the idea of learning: developing new skills and knowledge that enable you to do things you couldn’t do before.  You may also draw on experiences to develop those skills and knowledge.  Unlearn is about the ability to recognise that some of the things that you have learned may no longer be useful in your current context.  The default way of doing things, the standard approach you have had from your learning needs to be let go of, to be Unlearned, so that you can operate in a different way.

High Unlearn

If you have high Unlearn ability, you will find it easier to absorb new directives or information to change your processes and to get rid of redundant operations.  You will be able to embrace multiple perspectives, even if they’re in stark contrast to each other.  You will be energised to explore common ground between multiple viewpoints and find solutions to ambiguous problems.  You will be able, in a VUCA world, to deal with ambiguity and to deal with complexity.

Low Unlearn

If you are of low Unlearn ability, you are going to prefer a single and clearly defined solution rather than embracing ambiguity or conflicting possibilities.  You may feel exhausted and worn down if you are put in position where you must resolve problems that have tensions between opposing perspectives or significant uncertainty.  In a world of constant change, unlearning is a core competence to enable you to be more adaptable.  It is something that you can learn, so as you look at yourself recognise your lack of Unlearn competence and consider what you might do to develop it.

Team Implications

When you look at Unlearn in your team, think about the extent to which different members of your team have different levels of Unlearn.  Those who struggle with Unlearn need to develop their Unlearn and there are specific exercises and training interventions you can offer them.  Alternatively, reserve responsibility for problems with ambiguity and complexity to those with high Unlearn.

Organisation wide Implications

At an organisation level, look at overall Unlearn capability of different teams or grades.  If you find particular teams or particular grades have low Unlearn, recognise they may struggle with some of the initiatives you are planning or executing.  For example, classically, people in an accounting function want to know exactly what the processes are and how they can succeed, but if you are in an environment where the success for your business relies upon your ability to raise capital on a regular basis, then they are constantly living in a world of uncertainty and ambiguity.  They have got to plan for the ambiguity and uncertainity relating to the next fund raise.  They will also need to present the business in different ways depending upon the different investor requirements.  They need to hold in tension the predictability of their current cash flow with the need to respond to an infusion of capital which will tend to be an all or nothing outcome.


Unlearn is a crucial capability within an organisation that is seeking to be adaptable.   For you, as a leader and as an individual, it is important to understand the level of capability you have, your team has and how that affects the ability of your organisation to be successful.


Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.