Dom Price is Work Futurist in Chief and Head of R&D for Atlassian, which provides collaboration tools for teams from startup to enterprise. As an avid unlearner, we asked Dom to explain the concept and how entrepreneurs might leverage it to inspire growth and change. Here's what he shared.
What inspires you the most, and how has that impacted your career path?
DP/ My work is defined by two key questions: Where are we going, and how do teams work together most effectively to get there?
For us to thrive, not just survive, we have to keep one eye on the future and constantly evolve into the best version of ourselves. We then share that with customers and the world outside of the company, to truly live up to our mission of unleashing the potential in every team. That is the futurist. Sadly, it doesn't come with a crystal ball or next week's lotto numbers.
The second part is R&D where my particular focus is on how teams work. The world is changing at an epic rate. Given that exponential change and inherent uncertainty, it's important that we treat our teams like elite athletes, through drills, teamwork exercises, support, growth, experiments, exploration, exercises, learning and agility.
These two things together inspire me: being a catalyst to constantly drive improvement in how we work together, and then, every time we learn something, sharing it with the world. We get things wrong, but that's because we believe in the power of "try it," and not "prove it." The important part of the experiments that don't go right is to work out "Why?" rather than firing someone, and to share the lesson learned―and grow.
How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization?
DP/ Encouraging creative thinking at Atlassian is surprisingly easy, but that's because we've focused on that muscle and capability from our early days. Philosophically, we don't believe in the lone genius. Great human achievements and creativity are spurred by cognitively diverse people coming together on a team. In other words, great minds don't think alike.
There are a few elements to the secret sauce, though, that I believe have a significant positive impact.
Firstly, we include a values interview as part of our hiring process. It's designed to identify if the candidate has the right passion, desire and awareness to be part of something that is uncertain, volatile and complex.
Secondly, we have a very simple internal recognition system called Kudos, where any member of staff can recognize any other member with a card and personal note, accompanied by a small gift. This instant recognition and peer-to-peer thanks links to our values, reinforcing positive behaviors we want to see.
Thirdly, we give our teams time and space to be creative. We have a 20% time philosophy, where our teams take either one day a week, or one week every six, to work on personal projects relating to the team. We also have a quarterly, company-wide hackathon called ShipIt, which provides the genuine chance to "be the change you seek."
What is "unlearning," and why is it important in an entrepreneurial capacity?
DP/ Unlearning is the art of stopping a habit or ritual. Unlearning challenges you to uncover the knowledge you can forget, and free up space for newer information and insights. Then, you identify practices, rituals or behaviors that will not be as valuable to you in the future as they were in the past. The second part is much harder, as some rituals may still pay dividends. It's just that the dividend is reducing, and you need the time and space to try something new and evolve.
I see unlearning as a way to navigate the sea of information that exists because of rapid advancement in, and access to, technology. With information readily available, the problem I now see is the gap between what people know and what they apply that knowledge to. We're a generation that's obsessed with acquiring knowledge, but we're forgetting to take the time to apply it.
I think unlearning is important in any role, but it's especially relevant to entrepreneurs. When it's just you and you're bootstrapping, you're taking on many responsibilities and all the knowledge that goes along with them. But, your leadership style, operating model, organizational design, and work cadence are all going to be very different when you're up to 50 or 100 people. You quickly get to a point where you can't do more, so how can you be more effective without spending more time? You have to take something away―unlearn it―to free up capacity for something new.
What three best practices can leaders utilize to help their teams benefit from unlearning?
DP/ Know your leadership style, and seek to understand the impact it has on your team, both positive and negative. Work on the positives to make them super powers, and deal with the negatives so they don't become barriers.
Also, consider trying something like Team Health Monitors, a tactic our best leaders use. Instead of highlighting the weakest link, or using a working session to tell your team something they already know, our amazing leaders do less talking and more listening. When they truly stop and listen to their teams, they realize the wealth of wisdom and experience in their people, and that, sometimes, getting out of the way is the best thing to do.
Finally, practice what you preach. I do an exercise of unlearning every quarter. I assess the previous quarter, writing down what I loved, longed for, loathed and learned. The magic trick is that I don't allow myself to add in a "longed for" until I've taken out a "loathed."
How can unlearning support the rise of social entrepreneurship?
DP/ Social entrepreneurship is going through its own high rate of change. I strongly believe that unlearning, and the capability to evolve and adapt, will lead to a far higher rate of success than following the same thing on repeat with improved efficiency. Unlearning can challenge the norms of the past and enable us to truly understand impact on the world, communities and people. Unlearning can help us move away from measuring outputs, and instead focus on outcomes.
What's been your biggest surprise or breakthrough using unlearning?
DP/ Two really big surprises came out of it for me. The first is that my most effective personal goal is to make myself redundant. In other words, how can I do so well that others will carry the torch and do better than me? It's very liberating.
The second was the sudden realization that my job was to be a multiplier―to create leaders who create leaders. My role was to set a vision, direction and north star; to establish support networks to coach, mentor and inspire people around me; to influence, and to never exert power.
My most profound moment was when my good friend, Dan Pink, shared a new approach to meetings and workshops: "Argue like you're right, and listen like you're wrong."