Why Unlearning Is At Least As Important As Learning

Greg Satell
6 min readJan 21, 2023
Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

When I first went overseas to Poland in 1997, I thought I knew how the media business worked. I had some experience selling national radio time in New York and thought I could teach the Poles who, after 50 years of communism, hadn’t had much opportunity to learn how a modern ad market functioned. I was soon disappointed.

Whenever I would explain a simple principle, they would ask me, “why?” I was at a loss for an answer, because these were thought to be so obvious that nobody ever questioned them. When I thought about it though, many of the things I had learned as immutable laws were merely conventions that had built up over time.

As I traveled to more countries I found that even basic market functions, such as TV buying, varied enormously from place to place. I would come to realize that there wasn’t one “right” way to run a business but innumerable ways things could work. It was then that I began to understand the power of unlearning. It is, in fact, a key skill for the next era of innovation.

The One “True” Way To Innovate?

Innovation has become like a religion in business today, with “innovate or die” as its mantra. Much like televangelists preaching the prosperity gospel to gullible rubes, there’s no shortage of innovation gurus that claim to have discovered the secret to breakthrough innovation and are willing to share it with you, for an exorbitant fee, of course.

What I learned researching my book Mapping Innovation, however, is that there is no one “true” path to innovation. In fact, if you look at companies like IBM, Google and Amazon, although they are all world-class innovators, each goes about it very differently. IBM focuses on grand challenges that can take decades to solve, Google integrates a portfolio of innovation strategies and Amazon has embedded a customer obsession deep within its culture and practice.

What I found most interesting was that most people defined innovation in terms of how they’d been successful in the past, or in the case of self-described gurus, what they’d seen and heard to be successful. By pointing to case studies, they could “prove” that their way was indeed the “right” way. In effect, they believed that what they experienced was all there is.

--

--

Greg Satell

Co-Founder: ChangeOS | Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Wharton Lecturer, HBR Contributor, - Learn more at www.GregSatell.com