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Employing reflection as a strategic resource

In an age that demands decisiveness, far too little time is left for ourselves and our colleagues to reflect. And yet reflection enhances our ability to enter into creative and innovative processes in fresh and sometimes unorthodox ways.

If your role – either as an in-house resource or as an external consultant – is to build a culture of innovation or to manage or facilitate development processes within an organisation, encouraging and working with reflection as an actual tool can add value to the innovation process.

One of the most appreciated values of our time is decisiveness; a most sought-after characteristic when hiring managers and others with bottom-line responsibility in the private, as well as in the public sector. It has become the very symbol of strength, control and agility, and synonymous with always knowing what the most appropriate thing to do is, at all times and in any given situation.

daniel-tseng-111190-unsplash-copyIndecisiveness, on the other hand, seems to be less in demand. Indecisiveness is perceived to be a weakness of doubt and bewilderedness. Something that slows momentum by keeping doors open, allowing new alternatives to be brought to the table, and keeps the discussion going for as long as it takes. Indecisiveness also takes more time – time for reflection – because nothing is final, everything can be improved, or at least done in other ways. Even, possibly, with better results.

This focus on decisiveness sacrifices reflection on the altar of perceived effectiveness and efficiency. Despite constantly increasing complexity levels in most domains, the trend seems to be faster – instead of better and more carefully measured – decisions. Our time calls for more reflection and more prudence; far too many decisions are made – whether the situation craves it or not – hastily and on a rather shallow or even faulty basis.

 

While often being portrayed as adversaries, there does not need to be any inherent contradiction between reflectiveness and decisiveness. Just like good pieces of art, complex problems consist of several layers. There are the immediately recognisable, and then there are the subtler ones, which are gradually revealed as one keeps studying the object or problem – asking questions, discussing, and wondering. For the hidden to become overt and experiences to become meaningful, a certain time and space for reflection is needed.

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A culture that allows time for reflection and suitable spaces to do so requires a mandate from the very top of an organisation. If the ‘idleness’ of reflection is valued by the top management, it is more than likely that individual team members, as well as informal conversations, will give birth to more and more valuable ideas, than if the culture demands that everyone looks terribly busy all the time.

If the CEO has a frenetic personality and behaviour, it’s less likely that the rest of the management team will encourage a more laidback style, coffee breaks on the balcony and conversations without an agenda. Accept this. Instead embrace and exploit the small spaces of slack time that most of us experience during a day at the office, and look to find ways to build reflection into the processes of the team you directly lead.

 

Reflection though, is more than letting one’s thoughts drift during slack time or informal talks at the coffee machine. Reflection can be exploited strategically.

On an individual level, team members can be encouraged to reflect upon their own roles in the organisation, on the organisation’s overall activities and performance, or on current and specific issues of concern.

Ideally, team members should be asked to step out of their daily role and space for a certain amount of time either weekly or monthly and committ to doing something in that time that encourages reflection and new ideas. And because reflection time is not free time – it is work – ‘reflective assignments’ can be given.

Another way of exploiting reflection is to build it into managed team processes, whether these focus on innovation, business or organisational development. When used wisely and facilitated professionally, team reflection helps to access the tacit knowledge and accumulated experience of individual team members, as well as fostering re-framed and often surprisingly innovative angles on an issue, which would otherwise never have surfaced.

headway-537308-unsplashMoreover, instead of depending on inputs from ‘he who shouts louder…’, structured reflective processes ensure that all team members contribute, that all input is considered equally valuable, and that everyone builds confidence in their own gut feelings.

Reflection can also be used systematically in building teams and a corporate culture. Our reflections are based on four components; our knowledge, our experience, our attitudes and our aspirations; all of which to some extent will be exposed when we are forced to reflect together. When people are asked to reflect and share their reflections on issues as part of a facilitated process, a whole range of characteristics will become apparent. And this insight about a team – such as who has the ability to abstract and improvise and how different people frame problems differently – can be invaluable in shaping, planning and delivering future work.

However, a prerequisite for leveraging it successfully is that reflection becomes part of daily life, so that looking inwardly feels natural and is seen as a part of ‘how we do things around here’, not a tool which is picked up on special occasions only. Try to build in time for reflection – both individually and in teams, on a daily basis and as a part of structured processes. You will find that it acts as a catalyst for better ideas and of more facetted conversations internally and between project stakeholders, ensuring that intellectual capital is exploited, where it would otherwise have been lost.

About: Steinar Valade-Amland

Steinar helps organisations and individuals unlock their potential through the exploitation of design thinking, design management and design methodologies. He focuses on how to improve organisational performance and innovation capacity through stakeholder engagement strategies, through building creative capacity and a design driven culture, and through fostering the capabilities to effectively manage creative processes.

His book ‘INNOLITERACY – from design thinking to tangible change’ encourages reflection and inspires you to embark on your next development or change project. Taking its departure in the idea that all change for the better is innovation, the overall message of the book is to allocate much more resources to the earliest phases of a project – to the fuzzy front end, where the problem is unveiled and understood, defined and challenged, and where the roadmap for how to replace the existing with something better is drawn.

Steinar is an accredited member of the DBA’s Experts Register.

Image credits: 

Charles on Unsplash

Headway on Unsplash

Daniel Tseng on Unsplash

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