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OpinionThis Week in Procurement

TWIP: “You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned” – Yoda

By March 23, 2018February 23rd, 2020No Comments

I spend a lot of time on Twitter.

I set out to have a productive purpose (one can always hope!), rather than just go to commiserate with my fellow Bradford City supporters and debate the reasons behind our latest defeat.

One of the things I love about traipsing through twitter, is the chance to happen upon golden nuggets of inspiration. I came across one such nugget a few days ago from Procurement Revolutionary, Simona Pop:

Making Choices

Simona’s tweet put me in mind of the oft told story of the empty cup.


Once, a long time ago, there was a wise Zen master. People from far and near would seek his counsel and ask for his wisdom. Many would come and ask him to teach them, enlighten them in the way of Zen. He seldom turned any away. One day an important man, a man used to command and obedience, came to visit the master. “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The tone of the important man’s voice was one used to getting his own way.

The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man. Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?”

The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”


As regular readers and listeners know, I actively seek opportunities to evolve my thinking; to uncover new ways of moving as an effective catalyst. I have shared a bit of this journey and mindset development here: importance of mindset, and here: challenging my procurement assumptions. For me, the concept of “unlearning” is central to being a catalyst.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn – Alvin Toffler

What exactly is unlearning? In Why the Problem with Learning is Unlearning, Harvard Business Review (subscription required), Mark Bonchek writes:

“In every aspect of business, we are operating with mental models that have grown outdated or obsolete, from strategy to marketing to organization to leadership. To embrace the new logic of value creation, we have to unlearn the old one.

Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one”

Earlier in my career I made a move from buying automotive components to corporate services.  My mental model as a component buyer framed procurement as an entitled cog in the machine of product development, manufacture and cost management. Buying corporate services, however, existed inside of a different reality: there was no mandate for procurement’s (my) involvement in the buying process, let alone in all the attendant activities. I realized pretty quickly the need to shift my thinking. Before, I had a right to engage where and when I chose — and the stakeholder had an obligation to engage with me.

To succeed in my new role, I had to shift my attitude. Gone was the entitlement, a distant memory automatically being at the center of the conversation. Now I had to develop empathy, I needed to listen and demonstrably, patiently create value so stakeholders would want to engage with the procurement team, indeed seek us out. This required not only a new mindset, but also new skills, a number of which I would have associated more closely with a sales professional: research and understand the needs of a prospect (stakeholder), build relationships based on the provision of value rather than my role, tailor my offering as a solution to a particular challenge, and, frankly, bring more rigor to the tracking and execution of commitments made.

To even attempt making this shift, unlearning had to come first.

Knowledge is learning something every day. Wisdom is letting something go every day.Zen Proverb

Leaving a Mark

In The Art of Unlearning, Valeriano Donzelli writes:

“Unlearning as a conscious practice is more than a mere recognition of failure or mistake, it is an ACTION. It means you’re consciously open to recognize and willing to dismantle something that didn’t work within you, or that worked up to a point and is now obsolete or not effective anymore.”

Donzelli provides a roadmap with suggestions on how to unlearn. Here is what stood out most to me:

“The key aspect of this attitude is the suspension of judgement”

Making unlearning a deliberate practice was an epiphany for me. The act of conscious unlearning has brought with it a liberating routine and wonderfully productive habit that opens me up to new ideas and mindsets.  Creating a practice of suspending judgement has made all the difference for me.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. – Shunryu Suzuki-roshi

Generating Fulfillment

Some questions to ponder:

  • What are three or four adjectives that describe procurement?
  • Is Procurement a function, or is it a way of being, a way of thinking?
  • What is one small habit I have that has had the most significant impact?
  • What is one thing I could unlearn?
  • What is my biggest failure and what did I learn from it?

Being a Catalyst

If you come across an article, whitepaper, video or podcast that you would like to share with your fellow catalysts, please send a quick email with the details. I read every email and am eager to read yours.

This Week in Procurement

This Week @ AOP

Back in September 2016,  as part of The Procurement Revolution event, Kelly Barner and I opened the mic for 40 catalysts.

We asked them share their thoughts on the future of procurement. One of the conversations was with Jack Miles, the former CPO of CIBC, AIG, Computer Associates and the Secretary of State for the Florida Department of Management Services.

Our topic of conversation with Jack is just as relevant today as it was 18 months ago. We focused on how a growth mindset is so important to be successful, particularly given the changing nature of procurement.

“Nobody is going to look after your career and your positioning and your development any better than you are. You’ve got to figure out what you need. You’ve got to assess your gaps. You’ve got to assess the areas that are real strengths for you and the areas that are developmental areas. Seek some help to go out and address some of those.” – Jack Miles

Until next time,



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