Much is made of a world of constant change. It has always been; it will always be.
We know this because humans stop and take stock of things. Where we are; where we have been; where we might go. Who we are; who we have been; who we might be. It’s the act of reflection.
I believe the practice of regular reflection is essential to the repertoire of those who work in, and deal with, organisational change. The practice of reflection is taking time to consider past and current actions, and see what insights can be discovered and used for the future.
In its most simplest form, the practice is to get into a context where you are undisturbed for a period of time, and ask questions like:
- What went/is going well?
- With hindsight, what would I do differently? (this is a more constructive form of the question ‘What didn’t work well?’)
- What emerged/is emerging that has value?
Reflective practice can be done by an individual or a group; as a general regular activity, or after a specific action.
When you reflect, be sure to write down what comes to you. A record of thoughts and insights can be a useful source of knowledge to return to at a later date. You might be surprised to see how your thinking has changed over time.
Writing down your thoughts also helps you to crystallise them into something more tangible than the cognitive mud that might be in your head. There are attractive notebooks available at stationary specialists that might allure you to fill their blank pages with thoughts. If you like something less bulky, more portable and more collaborative for your note-taking, consider digital tools like MS OneNote.
Reflective practice helps you identify your state of knowledge:
- What do I know for sure? The implicit knowledge (not tacit) that I can make explicit by ‘mining’ self.
- What don’t I know? The questions, assumptions and presumptions that I can expose and explore.
- What I am in the process of knowing? The thoughts that are incomplete and immature that writing down may help to make sense and give shape.
Reflective practice brings all the senses of time together.
- Past – assessing what was; what change is indicated?
Present – doing and monitoring what is; has change taken place?
Future – imagining what can be; what change to aspire to?
Reflective practice improves self-awareness. With so much knowledge available to us – streaming in via social media, conversations with people, reading books and watching videos, attending training, doing the work – how and when do you take stock of it all? A regular discipline of reflecting creates temporal spaces for the cognitive processing of all that input. To be aware and to be present is to be centred amidst a whirl of change.
Fair warning – you might not like what appears when you reflect. Don’t skip over this. Put what appears in an appropriate context – it may be the equivalent of a proverbial bad hair day; or you really do need to fix something that is in disorder. With the knowledge that comes from reflection, you can act purposefully and to best effect.
Chris Argyris wrote an article in Harvard Business Review titled “Teaching Smart people to Learn“. Did the title get your attention? He makes the point that learning in the traditional sense is a single-loop exercise; but learning in a valuable professional sense is a double-loop exercise. What’s the double loop about? Looking inward, i.e. Reflection! Stepping back from the activity and reflecting critically about your own behaviour, how it might contribute to the current situation and what to change. Why not check out the article and use it as a prompt for a round of personal reflection about how smart you are at learning.
Reflective practice improves your capability to contribute to collective knowledge; and your capacity to create new knowledge whether in self, or to share with others in your community. Arguably, the kind of knowledge the world needs most, is people using the knowledge they already have and applying it in resolution to known problems. If your resolution works, let’s do more of it. If it doesn’t, let’s invest energies and resources elsewhere.
Reflective practice is valuable for the future-of-work. People operating as free agents in the workscape are outside typical organisational performance management structures (and yes – there is a whole other reflection to be had on whether these are useful or worthy); so a personal practice of reflection can be vital for self-performance management and development.
It’s not having experiences that makes us wise, it’s reflecting on the experiences that we’ve had that makes us wise.
~ Jane Fonda
‘Tis the season for reflection. The year ends, and a new year begins. May a fraction of your reflections bring you, and the world, gifts of immeasurable value.
About the author
Helen Palmer is Founder and Principal Change Agent at Questo. She’s thinking about ways to help others navigate ideas and assumptions in the workscape. She believes that when people ask critical questions of themselves, they stimulate insights that catalyse change. And change that has positive impact is the desirable goal.
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