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Unlearning is Product Management

Barry O’Reilly, Author of “Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results”, shares how to unlearn outdated behaviors and mindsets and embrace experimentation.


Product managers need to constantly learn new skills to stay competitive in today’s environment. However, according to Barry, it's even more important, and more challenging, to unlearn the outdated skills that are holding them back from embracing modern best practices such as continuous experimentation.

Barry has helped organizations all over the world embrace experimentation. In doing so, he’s found that people get stuck because the rely solely on practices that helped them in the past but are no longer productive. This mentality is epitomized by the common refrain: “that’s the ways we do things around here.”

In a rapidly changing digital landscape, where new technologies present new business opportunities and challenged, product managers need new and better practices. That’s why Barry wrote his new book, Unlearn – to help companies adopt better strategies for innovating in the digital age.

Barry says that people are most motivated to unlearn when they feel stuck and can’t solve problems using their old methods. Only by unlearning these old methods and relearning new behaviors, can they achieve breakthrough success.

Barry highlights five key mindsets that leaders need to make this leap:

  1. Curiosity: When presented with an alternative view for doing something, ask why, instead of closing your mind to it, and embrace the chance to learn something new.
  2. Courage: Recognize that what you’re doing isn’t achieving the outcomes that you want, and use this fact as motivation to take action.
  3. Commitment: Commit to practicing new behaviors and skill sets to get better outcomes.
  4. Comfort with being uncomfortable: Seek opportunities for growth by stepping out of your comfort zone.
  5. Safety: When people feel safe to fail, they’re more willing to try new ideas.

Barry highlights International Airlines Group, the 6th largest airline company in world, as being exemplary unlearners. Executives at the company sought out to gain an unfiltered view into how users engaged with their products. They found that their conceptions of the marketplace and their users were severely outdated. Executives had been making good decisions, but the decisions were based on bad data.

Being a customer of their own system, and having the safety net to fail, encouraged the executives to get curious again. Ultimately, they used the insights that they gained to make smarter investment decisions and to become pioneers in opening their API in an effort to engage the startup ecosystem.

It’s not sufficient to apply old solutions to new paradigms. Becoming experiment-driven requires a whole new set of behaviors.

You’ll learn a lot from this episode about unlearning, learning, and becoming more experiment-driven.

Here are the highlights:

  • The key moments that motivate people to change (8:12)
  • The most common behaviors and mindsets that hold leaders back (10:51)
  • The skills leaders need to have to unlearn outdated practices (16:03)
  • Barry’s simple techniques for getting unstuck (21:37)

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