Down the Inevitable Rabbit Hole, Organisations Must Unlearn

Feb 6 , 2021
By Asegid Getachew

Organisations have their way of doing things. It is a sort of routine they follow in the pursuit of achieving a desired outcome. These routines form the basis on which rules, norms, strategies and operating philosophies are established.

However, some of these routines may overstay their welcome. In time, they can become the cause of organisational inefficiency.

The fast-changing and dynamic environment demands that organisations have plans, policies and strategies to account for reality on the ground. And when they use the same old routine to operate in an environment that has outgrown their "way of doing things around here," they may find it difficult to compete with others who have proactively adjusted their strategy to the environment's demands.

This is true of an age where technology advances at an ever-increasing rate. Within just two decades, automation, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence have altered the way we lead our lives. It has also evolved supply chains and how resources are consumed. For the modern organisation then, little else matters than dynamism.

A segment in Lewis Caroll’s opus “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland” can serve as an apt allegory. It involves a situation where the protagonist, Alice, and another character, the Red Queen, are running. When they stop, they are surprised to find that they have not moved an inch.

Amazed, Alice asks the Red Queen why after all the running they are still in the same spot.

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place,” the queen proudly replies.

The incident perfectly applies to an organisation that subjects all their resources – time, energy and labour – to the objective of sticking to old routines that take them nowhere. Since they are toiling to perpetuate what they are already doing, they get outpaced and out-manoeuvred by competitors that have changed their "dominant logic of operation" in light of a new requirement.

The analogies are endless. Just as fitting would be the tale of Sisyphus in Greek mythology, who due to his cunning and infamous deeds was condemned by the Gods to roll a boulder up a hill. He pushes a big rock with his hands and knees to the top of a hill only to see it roll back to where he started. And he descends to repeat the same task for eternity.

Though the organisation we are talking about may not be re-living an eternal curse, they share a common feature with Sisyphus: using the same routine to do the same thing over and over. Fortunately, there are no Gods that have condemned them to such fates. They have a choice they can make.

Is there anything that organisations can do to avoid carrying their inefficient norms, procedures and strategies into the future?

There is one solution that organisational behaviour scientists agree on - unlearning.

Unlearning is an intentional process to get rid of old routines that do not meet the requirement of the day and replace them with new ones. Unlearning opens a possibility where organisations consciously engage in the crucial exercise of questioning what they are used to. It is based on the premise that old routines can be obsolete and need revamping.

As the saying goes, it is absurd to do the same thing repeatedly and expect a different result. Through the unlearning process, organisations learn new ways of doing things to achieve better results.

Organisations should also recognise that unlearning is a lifelong process of getting rid of old routines and learning new ones.

PUBLISHED ON Feb 06,2021 [ VOL 21 , NO 1084]

 is an assistant professor and research scholar at Andhra University. He can be reached at

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