How To (Un)Learn Riding A Bike


Let me recommend a video clip as a wonderful example of how difficult it is for the brain to re-program from what has been previously learned and repeatedly reinforced.

In this seven-minute clip, engineer Destin Sandlin demonstrates with some humour how long it took him to unlearn riding a bike. It is said that you never forget how to ride a bike, but what if you wanted to? It took Sandlin months to rewire the circuitry in his brain to master riding a “backwards” bicycle. Have a look and have a laugh here.

Even funnier is when he then tries to ride a normal bike. The results in both cases graphically demonstrate how the neural pathways in our brains become so firmly ingrained that it becomes physically impossible to think and behave in new ways without extensive practice and discipline.

One group I worked with recently had spent several weeks determining appropriate performance indicators to evaluate the success or otherwise of strategies being pursued. In a workshop to finalise the measures, lengthy discussions ensued about the virtues and weaknesses of each strategy. A new member of the team suggested a completely different way of looking at the problem. The group heard the suggestion, paused for a moment and moved on. The idea was summarily bequeathed to wither in the left field from whence it came.

It was some time before we could return to thought that was previously outside the group’s collective mindset. A well-placed question opened debate and participants, to their credit, entertained the concept sufficiently to debate the pros and cons without prejudice.

It turned out that this was the winning idea of the entire workshop and was one of those abstractions that invokes the “why didn’t we think of that earlier?” question.

The other example came from an executive team identifying new growth opportunities. As is usually the case, the opportunities being proposed by participants were all framed as strategies:

“We have an opportunity to sell internet security to our core market.”

“We could open an office in Singapore.”

            “We could merge with a competitor to gain market share.”

These are not opportunities, they are strategies. Listen for this in the next strategy workshop you attend; opportunities will invariably be framed as actions rather than market or consumer needs that can be tested.

Framing opportunities from a consumer perspective

The problem with stating opportunities as strategies is that they cannot be tested. Who knows whether a strategy is going to work or not until it is implemented? But a market need can be evaluated via market research. Future demand by returning customers can be mathematically predicted through regression analysis. 

Whatever method is used, the point is that the opportunity must be testable and it must be framed from a consumer’s perspective, not the company perspective.

The opportunity workshop went around the loop several times with me imploring the group to generate ideas from the customer perspective. It seemed to be a losing battle as, try as I might, the execs would not think about growth from any angle other than their own viewpoint about what strategies they could deploy. This from a talented, intelligent and committed executive team.

Fortunately, just like Destin Sandlin on his backwards bike, conceiving opportunities from the consumer perspective suddenly clicked. They got it. Hallelujah. It didn’t take months like it did for Sandlin, but it did take quite some considerable time in the workshop. Without strong pushback in moulding their thinking with each successive idea that was put forward, they might not have got there.

The next day the CEO was most appreciative of the group being pushed to identify true opportunities that could be tested. This simple switch from the traditional way of thinking ended up yielding a much greater opportunity set than had previously been the case. 

Because this particular team was clearly committed to the customers they served, and had a good understanding of their customer base, this re-framing uncovered entirely new growth arenas.

Understanding decision biases

To see the opportunities in this way the executive team had to consciously re-program the way in which they conceived growth strategies. Where previously offerings had been developed and failed because of the internal cognitive biases of executive and management, now they were thinking from a consumer needs basis rather than from purely a company product offering basis.

These are small examples of how our brains become fixed in the ways in which we think, problem solve and see the world. Try thinking about how you see the world and next time you are developing strategies or solving problems, turn your cognitive processes around 180 degrees. There might be some new and unexpected outcomes.

  • John Barrington is a leading strategy and governance expert, and founder of Barrington Consulting Group. For more information, email

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