AmpLab

Learn to unlearn

It may seem strange in modern innovation to evoke the words of the Buddha, but he voiced a fine definition of a successful approach to innovation when he said “The mind is everything. What you think you become.”

The problem is that we often don’t think, but instead unthinkingly work according to an established ways of doing things. Apparently for many organisations the Buddha should have said “The mind is everything, what you haven’t yet thought about you may become!”

In the daily business of most organisations, core competencies are seen as a competitive advantage. They have clearly served an organisation well in the past, enabling it to reach the point it’s at today, and trusted to steer a path into the future.

This way of thinking about core competencies elevates them to being seen as the core strengths and strategic advantages of an organisation, which they might well have been for a long period of time. Core competencies are often considered essential because they are beneficial to customers. They are also not easily replicated or imitated by competitors and can be widely leveraged across various markets, products and services. This seems to confirm how vital it is for organisations to protect and maintain their core competencies because they obviously provide the best chance for continued differentiation and growth .

However, thinking about core competencies in this manner can have a anchoring effect on an organisation’s long and short term agility, flexibility and capacity to innovate through an ever and rapidly changing environment. But it can also hinder innovation in a slow moving and predictable environment. Why?

Let’s take a different perspective on core competencies than we took moments ago. Let’s now think of your core competencies as representing the boundaries of your mental territory and the limitations of your organisational culture. This is where the more problematic aspects of core competencies begin to become clear. The boundaries of your territory and the limitations of your organisational culture can also be described as mental fixedness and a cognitive bias for doing things in a particular way, over and over again.

As humans we have a natural tendency toward mental fixedness and this has benefits. Knowing what objects are and what they do speeds things up and makes life easier. It’s much more efficient to classify objects and their uses in such a way that we don’t have think through them every time we come across them.

However, this useful tendency to mental fixedness can encourage restrictive behaviours when we think back to the first definition of core competencies. The core competencies we’ve developed demand that we stay within a certain mindset defined by the success of those very core competencies.

In other words, our success in fixing a problem with one set of tools means we try to use the same set of tools to fix another totally different problem. To do innovation effectively we need to put down the first set of tools (our old knowledge) and pick up a new set (new knowledge).  But our core competencies dissuade us from doing so. They keep us committed to the first set of tools and they want us to keep hold of them even after picking up a new set. What was once an advantage can now become an anchor slowing down or halting positive innovation and change.

In order to really benefit from learning we have to un-learn some of the previous learning so that the old knowledge can’t dictate what kind of new knowledge we’re able to acquire and how we’re able to use it.

To overcome the anchoring effect of your core competencies you need to continuously switch between learning and unlearning and you need to proactively and systematically question your orthodox thinking, your common business and organisational logics and your established assumptions. This means taking both an objective and a subjective approach in turns to gain full sight of your position and possibilities.

By approaching innovation in this way we’re able to see our core competencies for what they are today and how they might be changed or altered to maintain momentum into the future.

This isn’t as hard as it might sound. It’s just a question of unlearning your previous way of approaching an innovation challenge and then applying the new learning instead. Or had the Buddha been an innovation consultant today he might have said “The road to real innovation means letting go of your established ways of doing things!”.

To gain further insights into how to build and strengthen your innovation process, get in touch to see how we can help you. We’ve been pioneering the professionalisation of innovation since 2000 to become one of the world’s leading innovation consultancies. Amplify has developed and implemented unique innovation services that deliver immediate and long-term sustainable value, together with clients such as BMW, Siemens, Ericsson and AstraZeneca. Amplify also trains hundreds of  leaders, managers and innovation professionals on an annual basis, through their own programs and together with major international executive schools.

Professionalising innovation with Amplify means proactively embracing today and tomorrow.

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