Blog Article Collection

Unlearning Old Habits

Added on: 31-Aug-17 12:00am



Author: Vivien Twyford

I’ve written blogs on the challenges of collaboration before because I keep wanting to explore just why collaboration is so easy to talk about yet so difficult to practice. I wrote one earlier this year about the need for some of us to change the habits of a lifetime to be able to collaborate well, and another quite recently about getting stuck and not knowing what to do.


This time I’m focusing on what we sometimes must unlearn to work better with others.


Remember those desk calendars with a page for each day and each page having a useful quote or saying. Two of those have stuck with me: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else” and “Failing to plan is planning to fail”. Both were coined, I think, in the 1970's when the world was a less complex place and we could more easily solve problems based on what had worked in the past. All those sayings were intended to move us in a recognised and agreed direction in the workplace. That is, be clear about your objective, plan how to achieve it, and then implement the plan.


For example, when I decided to go travelling, I established my destination, whether the next town or across the world, and used the knowledge created by hundreds, even thousands, of people to decide how I would get there. It might have been a simple journey or a difficult, complicated one, but everything about it was known, or at least knowable; I just had to look things up, in encyclopedias, almanacs, travel books, atlases and timetables, because all the information I needed was already known.


Today, we tackle many problems that are qualitatively different from those of the past. Laurence J. Peter (author of the Peter Principle) said that “Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.” Jeff Conklin talks about problems that “demand an opportunity-driven approach; they require making decisions, doing experiments, launching pilot programs, testing prototypes, and so on.” These approaches are required because so many aspects of both the problem and its potential solutions are not only not known, they are not knowable. We need to accept the fact that we not only don’t know things, but we can’t know them without doing experiments, pilots or tests to provide us with data otherwise unavailable, both about the problem and its potential solutions.


Unlearning fixed concepts from the past is challenging. Being prepared to let go of well-known rules and linear and logical processes and the confidence that goes with their application is what I think we find most difficult. Unlearning old habits becomes a bigger problem the more senior we get and the more our image of ourselves is of someone who knows. Changing ourselves is more difficult than we thought it would be when we committed to collaboration.


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