How to unlearn with Barry O’Reilly

October 20, 2023 |  3 min read

Home / Insights / People / How to unlearn with Barry O’Reilly

Business advisor, author and entrepreneur, Barry O’Reilly helps many of the world’s most ambitious companies – from disruptive startups to Fortune 500 giants – break through to better ways of working, higher performance and growth.

We recently invited Barry to be a guest on the BIM Academy Digital Climate Podcast, where host Dr Graham Kelly asked Barry to explain his concept of unlearning and why it’s important to think big, start small and learning fast.

Barry began with telling Graham that “One of the things that’s always interested me is doing things that have never been done before. A thing that attracted me early in my career is I had the chance when I was in university to go and work in San Francisco just at the beginning of the boom. And I was really lucky. I was working for a company called, and they were sort of the equivalent of trying to put the Yellow Pages on the Internet. So, people would pay us, something like $50 a month and they could go get a website and a URL instantly.

“Now, our number one competitor was Zip Two. Are you familiar with Zip Two? It was Elon Musk’s first company. We were going to merge with them at one point, but in the end we didn’t. And I often joke, I don’t know what happened to Elon, but I’m here on your podcast today!”

Graham asks Barry how he applies his learning theories today: “Part of what I’ve done over the years is I’ve been lucky enough to be entrepreneurial and build businesses, but I’ve also done a lot of advising for Fortune 500, from companies like American Airlines and Wells Fargo to startups like Spotify and Slack.

“And one of the things that constantly struck me, working with these phenomenally gifted people was often when they were trying to change their businesses, it wasn’t the ability for them to learn new things that was the issue. The challenge was them letting go of a lot of the behaviours or thinking that had made them successful this far.

“You know, we hear a lot about learning in the world, but one of the things that struck me is we don’t really talk a lot about unlearning. And it’s kind of quite a provocative word as well. Many times, I’ve walked into executive offices and said, right, I’m going to teach you all how to unlearn. And most of the time they’re like, who’s this joker telling us what to do? What does he know about running finance or business operations or whatever?

“But the thing about unlearning I’m not saying what people know is wrong, it couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a system, or as I think of it, it’s a process of letting go or reframing once useful mindsets and behaviours that were effective in the past, but now limiting our success. So, it’s not forgetting, removing or discarding your knowledge or experience. It’s just a simple act of letting go of outdated information and making space for new information to come in.”

Graham comments: “My background in the construction industry and I think there’s so much learning or unlearning that could be done. I really wanted to start to explore what this all means from a construction perspective?

Barry replied: “From a starting point, one of the things we try to do is always talk about what success is and why it matters all the time, every conversation, every chance where it’s a team meeting, it’s a review., it’s a presentation. Whatever it is, it’s always important to keep reminding people, why we’re doing this and what success is and the effect we wanted to have on people and projects, no more so than for construction.

“Because that’s when people actually come up with more ideas, more thinking and new ways to create outcomes. Where I’ve seen probably some of the greatest innovations is when teams have just taken a moment and said, actually, you know what? Based on what we know now, the best way to create that experience where people feel like there’s space, there’s openness and air, is not to put a brick wall over there. It’s actually to put a window. And that’s the time when innovation happens.”

Towards to end of the conversation Barry said: “One piece of advice that’s always really resonated with me was actually from an uncle of mine who was an entrepreneur and at the time I had tried to launch a business and it wasn’t going so well. And one of the things he said to me was to remind me that you just don’t have one shot in life. There’s not just one moment, one serendipitous point where it all works out or it doesn’t. You actually have many shots. A lot of the things we attempt, some will work out, some won’t. It’s about dusting yourself down and then taking that experience and reload for the next attempt.”

Listen to the full conversation with Graham and Barry in Series 6, Episode 2 of the Digital Climate Podcast.

Listen now