Why space for reflection is critical in learning and development
By making reflection a habit, L&D practitioners have the potential to offer so much more value. But creating space and time to pause and ponder is no easy feat. Here’s some insights and strategies to help you.
“Honestly Nigel, there’s never a minute!” This was a heartfelt comment from a senior learning leader a month or so ago when I happened to bump into her at an event. She was describing not just the challenges, but also the incredible excitement she was feeling, because her role in the organisation had shifted from the periphery to centre stage.
Perhaps for the first time, lots of people were listening to her and seeking her advice, and, above all, senior executives were investing willingly in the development of their staff.
This is genuinely exciting if you are a learning leader. Who would not want to have the whole organisation finally understand the direct business benefit of investing in staff? To play a part in keeping the whole organisation more agile, engaged and able to cope with the challenges of the present, as well as building resilience for the future was, indeed, a privilege.
There is something very powerful about being engaged, and working at the centre of what is driving an organisation. And because most people want to succeed and fulfil the promise and the trust that has been invested in them, they do not rest. Each day becomes a hive of activity and decision making.
The risks of running on empty
I now want to pour a little cold water on that scenario. I worry about this frantic drive to do stuff! What we have known for at least 30 years is that taking stock is vitally important if we want to remain effective and relevant.
This idea is reinforced on a regular basis by new neuroscience research. Reflection is good for the brain and good for the individual. The truth is that the very elements of my colleague’s success in that exciting present presages the potential failure of her strategy in the near future.
The plaudits she is getting now can easily turn into brickbats, when what she expects to happen, does not occur. Or where expensive investments that she engineered did not deliver the benefits promised or the hoped for increases in productivity. Before you get caught up in a whirlwind of activity please pay attention to these three simple points.
If you are not actually taking the time to look at what you are doing in a critical way, you run the danger of making assumptions that do not work, or work for a little bit and then fail.
1. Reflect while in action
In the 1990s Donald Schon published a very important book called ‘The Reflective Practitioner’. In this book he argued that the age of the expert, who knew everything about a topic, had come to an end. The environment was too complex for expertise gathered in the past to be wholly relevant in the present. Does that sound familiar?
Schon was arguing for a different kind of practitioner to reflect the modern age. This person spent more time enquiring, asking questions, and exploring and validating his or her domain than telling people what to do or providing ready-made solutions.
A critical part of this was the ability to reflect, not only looking backwards on the action that had taken place, but also to reflect in action.
This was about having the wherewithal to change an approach because the circumstances or the context had changed. He likened this process to the difference between standing on a hill and surveying everything from far off, where it all looks neat and logical, and moving down from the hill into the ‘swampy lands below’ where it’s hard to make your way, and hard to see exactly the direction to take.
The point is that it is in the swampy lands below where your organisation lives. We do not work day to day in an abstract theoretical way. We have to make pragmatic decisions.
Some people have disagreed with Schon’s stark distinction between reflecting on action and reflecting in action. But the point is, if you are not actually taking the time to look at what you are doing in a critical way, you run the danger of making assumptions that do not work, or work for a little bit and then fail.
Neuroscience has taught us what most of us pragmatically know to be true: that the brain only learns when we stop for a second to process information.
2. Take time to review
After the Vietnam war, the US military changed the whole philosophy of leadership in the field, for very good reasons. And, out of that, emerged something called the ‘after action review’, which would even take place in the middle of a combat zone.
The review looked at every activity and engaged a simple process to review what worked, what did not work, and what could have been done better. This was all logged, and action was taken in light of the review. These reports were widely circulated, to not just the group involved, but to anybody who could benefit.
How many people in learning sit down quietly and conduct regular after action reviews? This can be about a relationship with a supplier, a relationship with an executive, or the implementation of some kind of programme. If the results are shared, the whole team learns and gets better and better. They all adapt and adjust as the environment changes.
3. Remember that less is more
Neuroscience has taught us what most of us pragmatically know to be true: that the brain only learns when we stop for a second to process information, and pause from cramming more and more information into our heads.
An example of this process is a doctoral program I have been involved with at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Over the years since inception we have systematically cut back the amount of content, in favour of reflection and discussion. Integrating the learning with various techniques for reflection and discussion has now become a core part of the programme. Even walk/talks are now embedded in the learning model.
How to find space for reflection
This will NOT happen by itself. Immediate pressures will overwhelm the best of intentions. You have to take active steps to create some space in your life and your work to turn this into a habit.
Here are some ways to start this process:
Build slowly. Start with 15 mins per day. If you can do that consistently for two weeks, you will start to build a habit. Once the habit is established you will be able to find extra time to complete this task. If you have not established the habit, you will only sporadically achieve the space to reflect, and then it will become more and more sporadic and eventually you will return back to where you started. Pick a time when you can shut off. Develop a nagging voice in your head, and then listen to it.
Have a structure. Maybe just three questions to answer about what more information you need; what went well, and what went badly; what have you learned this week? And then decide with whom you will share these insights.
Write down your conclusions even if you do not act on them immediately. Keep them separate in a notebook or a file so you can go back later to review and prioritise. And guard the insights as bright ideas that will emerge. They will be gold dust at the right moment.
Share your actions and build support for reflection across your whole team. Once you have worked out how to do it, make it a team habit, and a team process. The learning is multiplied many times over as is your impact and effectiveness. It will also strengthen the team and share their learning.
Do not give up. Work on it, find space and embed the process. It is at the heart of agility and resilience.
Nigel Paine has been involved in corporate learning for over twenty years. He has produced learning software, CD Roms and multimedia materials, and offered development and support to companies large and small.
Appointed in April 2002 to head up the BBC’s Learning and Development operation, he developed a brand-new on-boarding...