The Power of Experiential Un-Learning for serious Management Development

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated September 2018

In the early stages of new skill acquisition we fill up our “Skill Jar” with conditional rules such as “IF I am standing on the baseline THEN do not volley the ball back”, to use a simple example from tennis.

As we become more proficient, we solidify those rules which seem to work well and we discard or refine those rules which don’t work so well. 

An inevitable part of this process is we unconsciously make some rules absolute rather than conditional.

Thus in the tennis example, our rule might become “NEVER volley the ball” or “ALWAYS volley the ball”. 

When we de-conditionalize a rule it becomes a Golden Rule1, so-called because it has delivered for us consistently in the past.

Ironically however, Golden Rules can be THE major obstacle to us achieving our next level of performance. 

To address Golden Rules, we need to go back to our “Skill Jar”, now filled to bursting with rules, and spot the Golden rules, review them and throw some away.

This process is known as un-learning, and for a manager or leader can be the most important yet the most difficult and neglected form of leadership development.

Un-learning is challenging because we love our Golden Rules and may no longer even see them as rules - more just the way the world is - like gravity or oxygen!

To challenge our Golden Rules we will need help in the form of good self-reflection and peer review practices.

An immersive Business Simulation can be a wonderful opportunity to un-learn and declutter some Golden Rules.

We can collaborate with our colleagues as we immerse in a challenging scenario where we use a structured learning process with built-in time and structures for effective team and self-reflection.

If we neglect the important practice of Un-learning then some of our biggest strengths may become our greatest liabilities!


1. Dietrict Dörner’s excellent book, The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations, reminds us that all solutions are conditional and when we think we have discovered universally applicable solutions (Golden Rules) it is only because we have forgotten this fact and replaced the “IF” preceding our rule with an ALWAYS or NEVER in our own minds!

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Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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