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Reflection as a Discipline

Adaptive. Agile. Responsive.

Whether you believe that the world is changing faster than ever or not, I suspect there is near-universal agreement among leaders that organizations must become more nimble to succeed.

However, as is often the case, the desire for an organization to be something different seems to be strangely disconnected from the doing it will entail at the individual level. That is to say, adaptive and agile sound like fantastic destinations when considered in isolation from the daily practices required to get us there.

One of those practices is reflection. As some interesting research from the University of South Florida suggests, reflection as a practice is a critical component to increasing a team’s adaptability. Findings from 2014 also concluded that reflection increased individual learning and performance.

And yet, our organizations seem designed to prevent reflection. Many of us work in open-plan offices, exposing us to constant visual and auditory distractions and interruptions. It’s not uncommon for the modern knowledge worker to spend nearly half her day in meetings and on calls, fracturing her remaining hours into brief intermissions to allow for another cup of coffee, and (maybe) some lunch.

Of course, it isn’t only the organizations we work for that prevents us from reflecting on our work. We live in a culture that places a relentless and unhealthy focus on productivity, as if it were a sport to be won rather than the means to an end, and many of us have been indoctrinated with the outdated yet pernicious belief that we’re being paid to be busy for 40+ hours a week, not for the value that we deliver.

Individually, reflection can be uncomfortable. It involves examining our assumptions and beliefs, our performance, and potentially acknowledging our role in undesirable outcomes or even mistakes.

A recent HBR article notes that reflection is often deprioritized in the face of actions that ‘feel’ more productive, at a cost:

“…a focus on information processing, reaction, and execution — while it may feel productive — causes the quality of our thoughts to suffer. We believe that corporate leaders in today’s complex world urgently need to recultivate the art of reflection.”

Harvard Business School Professor and co-author of that 2014 study Francesca Gino says:

“Now more than ever we seem to be living lives where we’re busy and overworked, and our research shows that if we’d take some time out for reflection, we might be better off”

Cultivating Reflection in Ourselves

I am actively trying to make reflection a habit. I work from home and yet find myself trying to problem solve while staring at a computer screen. I know it’s not where I do my best thinking but there is a part of me that equates working with sitting at a desk, and being available as contributing.

My goal for this month was to consider when and where I think best, and make sure that I’m deliberately scheduling those activities into my week. For me, this means getting outside (even if it’s to walk down the street for a coffee), taking the streetcar home after the gym (optimal thinking time), and planning a trip to a museum alone (I checked out the AGO’s fantastic Guillermo Del Toro exhibit last week).

Cultivating Reflection in Our Organizations

Reflection sounds easy. But like most simple things that only provide real benefit through repeated application, it isn’t. We can’t just tell people to think quietly for a few minutes and ‘mission accomplished’.

How can we build reflection as a discipline in our teams and organizations? A few ideas:

  • Reducing Meetings: Not all meeting are bad, but we often fail to examine their value and just show up. Establish accountability and a process to regularly review recurring meetings with a goal of eliminating those that don’t offer value relative to other activities.
  • Meeting reflection: Insist on 45 minute agendas for 60 minute meetings so that your team can be finished early, and the remaining time used to process the discussion and initiate action steps –  via Bill Howat
  • Retrospectives: Implement team retrospectives as a habit following projects

“…budgeting time for reflection and debriefing is a key step managers can take. “A really important part of it is allowing time in the project timeline to have that debrief, to reflect and to realize, ‘here’s what we did well, and here’s what maybe we need to improve upon to move forward.”’ via Barbara Ruland

  • Keep a Decision Journal: I love this practice, which I first came across in a post by Shane Parrish but is from Daniel Kahneman. It requires reflection about a decision as one is engaged in making it, and then serves as a tool for reflection later, to test the quality of your decisions and counter hindsight bias.

“The idea is whenever you are making a consequential decision, write down what you decided, why you decided as you did, what you expect to happen, and if you’re so inclined, how you feel mentally and physically.”

  • Flexibility as the new normal: Trust team members to know where and when they do their best thinking. Give them time and space to incubate ideas, including time way from their desk and outside of the office.

What else? Do you have strategies to cultivate individual or organizational reflection?

Read This Week:

Loops of Progress, or How Modern Are You? Shane Parrish, Farnham Street

Is our world a marvel of technological progress? This short post from Shane Parrish takes the view that just because we can order Ubereats doesn’t mean we’ve made a lot of progress since Victorian times.

“We tend to consider social development as occurring in a straight line: we progressed from A to B to C, with each step being more advanced and, we assume, better than the one before. This perception isn’t always accurate, though. Part of learning from the past is appreciating that we humans have tried many different ways to organize ourselves, with lots of repetitions. If we want success now, we need to understand our past efforts in order to see what changes might be needed this time around.

Have We Lost Our Minds? – Christian Madsbjerg, EPIC

A skeptical take on the current hype surrounding AI and cognitive tech. I’m a big proponent of considering contrarian views and questions that challenge prevailing wisdom.

“Part of the marketing model of information technology is that the next big thing is always around the corner. These days, that means deep learning and AI. We’re being told that machine learning is going to revolutionize and disrupt everything as we know it and spur amazing productivity…the way IoT and big data were meant to just a few years ago. But before this hype-cycle takes off again, maybe it’s time to take a step back and ask ourselves if we should really buy what they’re selling. What makes these technologies that much different from the failed ones in the past? Will they truly stimulate unprecedented productivity? Or is this just another round of technology-sector marketing that will distract us from real matters of human importance?”

Leadership and Generations at Work: A Critical Review – Rudolph, Cort & Rauvola, Rachel & Zacher, Hannes, The Leadership Quarterly

I am going to keep posting these as I come across them. This one came to my attention thanks to Rob Briner. As HR practitioners, we must stop using generations as a framework for people practices, programs, and org decision-making! Note that the full pdf of this paper is available for download and is fairly readable, as far as academic papers go. It outlines a range of assumptions and myths associated with the concept of generational differences and the lack of any reliable evidence to support these.

“…we argue that the lifespan developmental perspective represents a useful alternative to generational representations, as it better captures age-related dynamics that are relevant to leadership, followership, and leadership development. Ultimately, our work serves as a formal call for a moratorium to be placed upon the application of the ideas of generations and generational differences to leadership theory, research, and practice..”

Missed last week’s post? Check it out here: Imagining HR’s Role in Our Digital Future

Image credit: Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash



2 Comments Post a comment
  1. durieconsulting #

    We can’t grow if we don’t know where the problems are coming from! Great post on the strength of self-reflection from the institutional perspective, Jane.

    October 9, 2017
  2. Miriam Watson #

    Excellent….as always!!

    October 11, 2017

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