Unfreeze and Refreeze: Unlearning

Unlearn iconOver the next few months, we will be exploring learning as part of a new blog series on LeaderNet. What have we learned about learning over the last 10 years? What types of learning do we encounter most often? Below is the third part of the series on experiential learning.

How do we really learn? In my day-to-day work in knowledge management (KM), I promote learning in many forms such as helping others learn how to do things, helping them learn where to find things, and helping them make connections to others so that they can learn from each other. Learning takes many forms. We can learn about a specific approach to accomplish a task efficiently, how to optimally search for and access the information and resources we need to get work done, or how to interact with and find our peers to ask them the right questions and listen to their responses.

But an important aspect of learning, especially for adults, is unlearning. As it says in this HBR article: “Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm” [1]. Unlearning is a process of letting go of old ways of working or thinking about our work, letting go of inefficient ways of thinking about how information and knowledge should be organized or captured, and letting go of organizational lines and exploring new modes of collaboration and interaction within an organization.

In the ABC of Knowledge Management, a simple and interesting question is posed: “why is KM such a challenge for us?” The authors point to organizational norms, culture, and behaviors that inhibit knowledge exchange. “Awareness of this is the first step to overcoming it. It is important to understand that we all carry this kind of programming and we all need to take responsibility for unlearning it and rethinking our old philosophies” [2].

When I worked at CARE, we talked about unlearning in terms of imagining different behaviors and actions. We worked with program managers in Ethiopia, Honduras, Kenya, Madagascar, and Rwanda to “challenge” community norms about gender dynamics and family planning [3]. By using the Social Analysis and Action approach, we identified “challenge statements” or “sticky issues” within that specific cultural context. These were the issues or situations that created cognitive dissonance (e.g., holding two opposing ideas at the same time) among project staff and the local community, where new values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors could be explored and reimagined, and old behaviors could potentially be unlearned [4]. For example, imagining greater fairness in the distribution of household chores and child care between husbands and wives, imagining non-hierarchical relationships between project managers and community leaders, imagining ways that supporters and non-supporters of family planning could find common ground to support the resilience of their community, and imagining greater equity in the workplace between women and men, junior and senior staff. Click here to see a short video from CARE’s work in Rwanda.

These concepts are grounded in Kurt Lewin’s work on fundamental change (unfreezing → changing → refreezing) (I am also a big fan of force field analysis) [5]. Identifying specific points of cognitive dissonance created opportunities (unfreezing) where new behaviors and thinking (change) could be imagined, practiced, and incorporated into our lives (refreezing). New learning takes root through the unlearning process. And unlearning happens at all levels – individual, group, institution.

In my KM work, exploring these points of disruption can be very powerful. For example, exploring two different scenarios such as having access to all information, all the time, by everyone versus having the right information, at the right time, by the right person. Or deciding whether you need one large, comprehensive solution for many small problems, or multiple small solutions within a complex ecosystem of knowledge-related problems. These are not always straightforward discussions, but critical for the learning and unlearning process.

Unlearning, just like learning, takes time and practice. As we aim to encourage learning, and unlearning, in our work environments, it is our responsibility to move solutions from abstract to practical, to remain client-focused, to plan for continuous, multifaceted, and persistent engagement of stakeholders, and lastly, commit to being open to unfreezing, changing, and refreezing ourselves (but let’s also stay malleable!).


[1] Why the Problem with Learning Is Unlearning. By Mark Bonchek, Harvard Business Review. November 3, 2016.

[2] ABC of Knowledge Management. Creator: NHS National Library for Health: Knowledge Management Specialist Library. Contributor: Caroline De Brún. July 2005. Available at: http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/knowledge/docs/ABC_of_KM.pdf

[3] Wegs C, Creanga AA, Galavotti C, Wamalwa E (2016) Community Dialogue to Shift Social Norms and Enable Family Planning: An Evaluation of the Family Planning Results Initiative in Kenya. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0153907. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0153907

[4] CARE USA. (2007). Ideas and Action: Addressing the Social Factors that Influence Sexual and Reproductive Health.
Available at: http://www.care.org/sites/default/files/documents/social_analysis_manual.pdf

[5] For application of Lewin’s work in establishing dashboards see the GMS course on PR Management Dashboard Basics (Module 1, Unit 3: Theory of Innovation and Change Management). Available at https://leadernet.org/module-1/module-1-theory-innovation-change-management/

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