Revolutionary Times

Unlearning, 101

by

A sign on the door of Jaipur Rugs, one of the world’s most progressive and successful social enterprises, which supports 7,000 weavers in 700 of India’s poorest communities, reads: “higher school of unlearning.” This isn’t just whimsy. It’s a statement of the values of a company that constantly challenges the lessons that have been hard-wired into us, about what success in business means. This is a company whose leadership understands the role of humility in business; that even those at the top have something to learn. We all have a huge learning curve about operating in the new world order. But rarely do we think about things we need to unlearn.

Here’s three for starters:

Value: In spite of what a few softies might think, all that matters to the value of a company is its profit and loss. All that matters to a government is growth and, these days, ‘value for money’. Yet when people are asked what they value most in life most will spontaneously answer: my family, my health, my time, my friends. Rarely do they say my bank account, my big car, my TV. So why do our commercial and public systems still measure value solely by financial return? We have yet to unlearn this and consider other forms of value, such as time, social impact, relationships, or the environment.

Competition: Thanks to capitalism, everything school teaches us is competitive behaviour – compete in exams, on the sports field, in the market. But competition can lead to a race to the bottom: pressure to reduce already low wages; substandard working conditions; cutting corners in environmental protection; tax dodging; bribery and corruption. Cooperation, on the other hand, frees up creativity and creates new opportunities to deal with complex sustainability challenges. It’s no surprise that the first three adopters of the new Fair Tax Mark – an initiative aimed to reduce tax avoidance – were all cooperatives. Cooperatives have been a compelling tool for those at the bottom too: they have enabled small-holder farmers participating in the Fairtrade system to flourish, for example. Indigenous societies show us that competition is not ingrained in our DNA; competitiveness is socially learned. Ecosystems survive because of a cooperative interrelationship between species and nature. We need to unlearn one, and skill up on the other.

Hierarchy: Hierarchy remains the dominant way of organising, and most of our egos depend on it: we climb to the top because we’ve earned it, and therefore deserve the power it affords. Yet hierarchy can be one of the biggest barriers to change and innovation. We’re hardly going to solve some of our biggest challenges if we rely on top down, command-and-control thinking that squeezes out ideas and initiative and is based on systems of mistrust. Networked organisations have more resilience and are more adaptive to big complex changes. Unlearning our tendency to control will be challenging for many, but will open new and more enlightened doors.

No doubt we need to learn a lot more. But first we need to unlearn what’s getting in the way.


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