UNLEARN: The Future of Work & A New Operating System For Change

Ross Thornley
November 19, 2019
November 19, 2019

5 months ago, on June 19th, Adaptai hosted its soft launch event UNLEARN: The Future of Work, in Shoreditch, London, marking an important milestone in not only understanding the changes that technology and radical thought-shifts will have on the workplace, but also our identity as human beings. In the words of Nicola Strong, who has researched and written a paper on coaching chatbots:

‘Technology is one part, but for me it’s actually helping us to find out who we are.’

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But first, what do we mean by ‘unlearn’? It’s a new phrase we’re seeing crop up all over the place. In Barry O’Reilly’s 2018-published book Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results, we see how the power of un-learning allowed champions such as Serena Williams to overcome tremendous obstacles, both personal and on the court.

In What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith (2012), we see similar ideas explored.

This is especially relevant within the context of our current times; we’re shifting from a linear world (where we look to the past to make predictions about the future, where we move in straight logical steps) to an exponential one (where every step we double the distance we travelled previously, where the past cannot help us predict the future). The reality is that humans are not adapting as fast as technology is, which is creating friction-points. As a result, mental-health issues and suicide rates are at all all-time high.

The dictionary definition of ‘unlearn’ is:

‘discard (something learned, especially a bad habit or false or outdated information) from one’s memory.’

The key phrase here is ‘outdated’. In our faster-than-lightspeed world, where the pace of change has never been more rapid, new information, ideas, technologies, and resources are emerging all the time, and often they disrupt the old systems. Consider how ‘unicorns’, privately held companies with billion-dollar evaluation, are emerging left right and centre. Many of these organisations, are shifting our existing paradigms and perceptions of how things work. Meanwhile, in contrast to these colossal ‘rises’, we are seeing bankruptcy, poverty, and financial disaster, like the recent Thomas Cook collapse. If we cling to the old ways of doing things, and refuse to embrace the new, then we risk becoming outdated ourselves, and eventually, becoming unable to cope in the modern world.

Unlearning is a process. First, we must unlearn old information or processes or habits that may not be useful to us, then we have to look to the future: adopting new habits and processes, and taking on new information that might better suit our needs. This is at the core of our ability to adapt.

We believe AQ (adaptability quotient), is the new competitive advantage. In fact, adaption has always been of critical importance not only to the survival of our species, but its thriving. However, now, when the world is changing faster than we can predict, it is more important than ever. Never has it been more relevant to learn how to unlearn, and to be able to measure and quantify our ability to adapt.

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We are not only in a period of rapid-change, but also one of — not to sound melodramatic — crisis. If the 2030 Global Goals established by the United Nations are anything to go by, they indicate a need for radical action. We view these global goals as the ‘to do list’ for the planet. Solving world hunger. Solving world poverty. Solving climate change. To name just a few of the ambitious goals. We realise that in order to meet these goals — and it is our aim to move the needle on many of them over the next decade — we will have to overturn many established ‘norms’. Take the petrol-car as one example. If it is phased out or made redundant by 2030 as part of the reduction of fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, how then will the world’s drivers adapt and change? The context of these goals sparked a realisation with us at Adaptai: that we needed to do something to help those people who will be caught in the ever-shifting currents.

For many, this will be a new and scary process, where their ideas and strongly held beliefs will be challenged to their core. At Adaptai, our mission is to leave no-one behind as we enter this period of intense disruption.

In order to help achieve this goal, we have created the first-ever AI powered, holistic measure of AQ, measuring adaptability over three core dimensions: Ability, Character, and Environment. It is our intention to create a new operating system for change. Adaptability is one component of that system.

Let’s examine our current ‘operating system’. Or, as Marshall Goldsmith would term it: ‘What got us here’.

  • Research: learning things, speaking to specialists, getting competitive advantage with rare knowledge and / or trade secrets.
  • Talent: we waged war for the most talented people, fighting other companies to gain the ‘star players’. We believed that with ‘star people’ we could beat the competition by leveraging in-house advantage.
  • Departments: we had specialisations within a company, groups of people all focused on one aspect of the business. For the most part, these departments did not communicate with one another, because we wanted them to remain focused.
  • Rigid Structure: we wanted certainty, so we built systems with military-esque hierarchies, to give predictability and certainty, which was attractive to investors. And helped to scale operations.
  • Time & Effort Economy: “I work 9–5. I put x time in, I get x result.” It was an economy based on entitlement of money owed for effort given, regardless of value or outcome. If you create massive value in 1 hour, should you be paid for that hour, or for the value you created?
  • Risk Management: How do we “manage” change and “manage” risk? The processes and language we use surrounding these is one of minimisation, mitigation, and fear.

We’re entering a world where we no longer know how to predict things, where certainty has gone out the window. The amusing yet eye-opening thing is that many of the new startups taking the world by storm have not had to unlearn the above ‘old’ operating system, because they are young enough and bold enough to create their own methodologies.

We, however, must unlearn and break ties with the elements from the old that no longer serves us. Exploring new ways to innovate, to unlock creativity and problem solving through 10X thinking and wild imagination.

Here’s a few ideas of how the new operating system might look:

    We must learn how to become open-source, sharing knowledge and collaborating with others. The Internet has democratised virtually all information, so why bother trying to hide and keep secrets? Embrace cooperation and the insights that can come from sharing and learning.
    Rather than warring with each other over talent, we simply have to start leveraging crowd teamwork and investing differently in our people. Films like MoneyBall (starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill), about how a baseball GM overhauls the established way of choosing players (talent scouts), in favour of unbiased algorithms, show us that the ‘myth’ of star players is just that: a myth. In fact, many people of star-quality are overlooked on a daily basis for some unacknowledged prejudice within us — or even just personal preference and an inability to see the bigger picture cold-data can reveal. We should not be looking to one golden person to solve all our company’s problems, but instead leveraging wider and remote teams on demand and seeing how each person can help us win.
    When departments aren’t talking to each other, opportunities are missed and mistakes can happen. These ‘silos’ can become isolated and locked into old processes. We need to break out of silos and instead create an environment of cross-pollination and collaboration. Together with embracing cross company and cross-sector collaboration.
    Top-down rigid hierarchical structures are helpful in a war-zone, where the chain of command needs to be clear. However, in the modern ‘civilian’ world, it can lead to de-motivation and myopia. By listening to every member of staff, you leverage the crowd and maximise learning opportunities. Every person in your organisation can add incredible value, provide feedback, and insights. In the words of Steve Jobs: ‘It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.’
    Instead of a time and effort economy, we need to transition to a results economy, where we prioritise creativity, bold experiments, and outcomes over time-effort. It’s interesting that Greg Curtin, TED speaker and consultant, observed: ‘Humans are not actually that good at routine, repetitive tasks. We do them because we have to.’ Soon, robots and AI might take away our need to perform these ‘routine’ tasks. In addition, if humans can work more optimally and dynamically (for example, if a programmer can build a website in a day, and they do their best work early in the morning), why confine work to a nine-to-five work regime — especially if it is harmful to mental health? We live in a world where increasingly, both parents are having to work to support their children, and where it is possible to work remotely, not only for companies across the country but across the world. It’s time to embrace the future of flexible working.
    We need to learn to use risk, to leverage it and maximise the gains we can receive from taking risks, experimenting, and trying new things.
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To help us transition and discuss how this new operating system might look, we hosted UNLEARN: The Future of Work, as part of a private event series, a small gathering of game-changers and pioneers to discuss and share ideas for the future global workforce in a world of accelerating change.

The focus of this event was manifold: to help leaders learn how we might use AQ to better identify candidates for new roles that require skills to adapt; to lose the high costs of hiring, and focus on re-skilling; to shift from surviving, through growth and into a thriving future; transform how we identify, develop and nurture talent; prepare our workforces and organisations for tomorrow; discover the mindsets for highly adaptable leaders; and invite those attending to become one of the first companies to discover the AQ of their people.

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The event hosted on June 19th was an incredible and uplifting experience, where those in attendance freely shared their wisdom and knowledge. We hope to continue to go forward bearing the optimism and hope of the event, and we invite you to become a part of that journey in the future too.

Interested in discovering your AQ score or your organisation’s? You can sign up to our beta program.

Curious about how our AQ assessment works? Click here.

You can read more about the human cost of our rapidly-changing world here.

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