(I wrote the original article this is based on for Training Industry Quarterly in Winter, 2012 but feel it still speaks to a key issue for building high performance that has barely been touched by many L&D professionals).
In a world where speed and agility are the driving forces for most of our organisations we tend value our ability to look forward rather than to backwards. Yet one of the most useful tools for effective learning and development is reflection.
Critical reflection is one of the four fundamental ways in which we learn and improve. This holds true for learning in the workplace and in life. Yet many organisations have lost sight of the value of reflective practice as an effective means of development as well as a way to identify where and when things have gone wrong (and have gone right).
Of course there are exceptions. Military after-action reviews (AARs) are tremendous structured processes that analyse what happened, why it happened and how it could be done better. The US military four-question AAR, for example, could serve as a template for any organisation to help embed a culture of reflection. It may only take a minute but can be used as a simple technique to reflect and analyse how things can be done better next time. The four questions of the typical AARs are:
1. what did we set out to do?
2. what actually happened?
3. why did it happen?
4. what will we do next time?
Reflection as a Critical L&D Process
The speed of learning and development in our organisations is often reduced to a slow walk focused on following defined processes and procedures – and often on content-centric ‘knowledge transfer’ - without acknowledging and taking time to understand errors (and we all make them from time to time) and deciding the required changes in behaviour and action to ensure the same errors are not made again. Helping people reflect and analyse what’s going right or wrong are rarely core parts any L&D kitbag.
Even if your organisation has an after-action or project review process it is always helpful to spend some time reflecting individually and in small teams on a regular basis quite apart from any specific project process. Some forward-thinking organisations now encourage this type of reflection and narration of work by providing the facility for personal blogs on the intranet or by implementing storytelling. Qualcomm, the global mobile technology company, uses its successful ’52 weeks’ program to encourage employees to use structured storytelling for reflection and to share information, attitudes and behaviours across the company. Initially started as a weekly email for new hires, the program is now firm-wide and provides a key repository of reflective stories and experiences.
Learning in 4 Steps – the Role of Reflection
There are many deep theories of learning, but we can boil the process down into these four key areas:
- Learning Through Experience: we learn a huge amount through exposure to new and challenging experiences. ‘Work that stretches’ is often the best teacher any of us will ever have. Research tells us that immersive learning and learning in context provides the most memorable learning experiences. This is one reason for the increased interest and activity in experiential and social learning in the past few years. However, experiential learning is still often under-valued and under-exploited by learning professionals. As the late professor Allan Tough said ‘most of the learning is under the waterline’.
- Learning Through Practice: we learn through creating opportunities to practice and improve. Without practice we can never hope to become high-performers. We can’t for a minute imagine our great sportsmen and women rising to the top of their game without hours and hours of practice, even when they are world champions. What makes us think becoming high performers in our work is any different?
- Learning Through Conversation: we learn through our interactions and dialogue with others – through informal coaching and mentoring, and building social networks inside and outside work. Conversation is the ‘lubrication’ of learning and development. Jerome Bruner, the greatest educational psychologist of our era, once said ‘our world is others’. We often forget this fundamental fact.
- Learning Through Reflection: Reflection is the ‘glue’ that we need to exploit the other forms of learning. Charles Handy, the management ‘guru’, writer and observer, points out that ‘experience plus reflection is the learning that lasts’. We learn through taking the opportunity to reflect both in the workflow and away from our work. We can then plan further activities that will incorporate our learning and improve our performance further.
A good starting point for embedding reflection into daily workflow is to approach the practice at two levels; individual reflection, and then reflection with colleagues and team members. Reflective practice itself doesn’t ‘just happen’. It is a learned process. It requires some degree of self-awareness and the ability to critically evaluate experiences, actions and results.