Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The importance of reflection

We've all been in situations in our professional lives where things didn't go exactly according to plan. But how often do we take the time to sit down and take the time to reflect on where it all went wrong?

There are any number of ways in which we can stuff things up. It's a sad fact of life that we makes mistakes - spectacularly so at times. None of us are perfect; and, more importantly, most of us are constantly trying to expand our skill set, experience, and knowledge. Learning is a critical aspect of our professional lives, and one of the best ways to learn is to just give it a try. And when you give things a try, sometimes you'll get it wrong.

Get used to it.

More importantly, if you really want to get the most out of the failure as a learning experience, you need to go back and think critically about what went wrong.

In order to learn from our mistakes our reflection needs to include several components:
  1. Reflection is best done in proximity to the event itself;
  2. Be objective;
  3. Look at the problem from a range of different perspectives;
  4. Explore different possibilities for avoiding such errors in the future;
  5. Commit to improve and do better next time.
1. Reflect quickly
It's important to take the time to look back at the events while they're still clear in your head. The longer you wait the harder it will be to remember exactly what happened, and a lot of the details will be lost.

2. Be Objective
This is probably one of the most important elements of good reflection and learning. It's normal to feel angry, frustrated, or just plain stupid when things go wrong. While you're in that frame of mind is the wrong time to try to reflect on the problem. Wait until you've calmed down; get some distance - but not too much! Don't forget point 1.

Objectivity is necessary for the reflection to really provide any value. If you're not looking objectively at the situation, then it's likely that a lot of what's going through your head is more blame than responsibility. Reflecting should be an opportunity for you to ask: 'What did I do wrong?' 'What can I do better next time?'

If you find yourself cataloguing all the instances where other people stuffed up, then I suggest you give it a rest for a while and come back when you have a bit more distance. What others did wrong is not the focus of the exercise.

3. Different Perspectives
A good way to uncover insights into why things went awry is to put yourself into the shoes of some of the other actors in the situation - client, colleagues, family etc. Try to look at the situation from their perspective: what were their expectations? How did the actual events match those expectations? Were they being listened to? What would they have seen?

If possible, and if you have the opportunity, it can be useful to actually discuss the events with others. Not as a formal de-brief - although these can be good for the project team - but as a way to gain an extra dimension to the problem. Remember, the idea here is to gain a better understanding of the path events took so that you can start to look at ways to avoid the same problem in the future.

4. Explore possibilities
Thinking about our mistakes can be painful; and something that we'd like to get over quickly. One way to do that is to come up with one good idea for not making the mistake in the future and calling a job well done.

But like most ideation activities, the first ideas are often not the best. Treat reflection in the same way: throw down a whole bunch of ideas and then start going through them. Look at each possible solution both in terms of how it might have affected the mistake for the better; and whether there would possibly be any further consequences down the track. The last thing you want to do is take a different tack next time and make things worse!

5. Commit to doing it better
OK, so you've thought about your mistakes; looked at it from different perspectives; come up with a few ideas that you think would work in the future. For many people, that's the end of it. When the same situation arises in the future, they fall into the exact same behaviour; make the same decisions; and the same mistakes occur.

The point of reflecting on our mistakes is to make ourselves better at that activity in the future. But it usually takes an explicit commitment on our parts before that change in behaviour, thinking, and action comes together and actually results in a different approach next time.

Things to reflect on...
Short answer: everything. A meeting that goes pear-shaped; a design document that is completed misunderstood; a decision that cascades into a project disaster (budget, time, etc); taking a bad job/client; a clash with a colleague.

It can also be interesting, and useful, to spend time reflecting on things that we've seen or read - articles, books, a design, a product, a presentation. In this case, the aim is to think about how we can fit this idea or concept into our knowledge and make use of it in future.

I don't have time to think!
This is a pretty common reaction whenever the topic of reflection comes up: I don't have time to sit and think. So let me ask you: do you have time to make the same mistakes over and over again.

I was once told, without any hint of irony, that I wasn't paid to sit around and think. That was, and remains, perhaps the most short-sighted thing I've ever heard.

I once read that senior managers should spend at least 25% of their time thinking about the future of their company; and another 25% reflecting on the past. Whenever I mention that to people in senior roles they can't help but laugh. It seems ridiculous that we might spend that much time 'not doing any real work'. But again I ask: if you're not learning from your mistakes, then what 'real work' are you really doing?

Do you take the time to reflect? Don't you think you should?


Andrew Boyd said...

Hi Steve,

good post. Most managers would quote von Clausewitz at you in response - that only an idiot learns only from their own mistakes, and it is better to learn from those of others - but truth be told, if they learned effectively from their own mistakes then the world would be a far better place.

Then there would be some who may not recognise a disaster as such because they still get paid three figures an hour regardless :)

Best regards, Andrew

Anonymous said...

Steve, great post -- more than just about reflection, but of iterative learning, and understanding that you're work is about getting a product to a goal. If you can't separate yourself from tactics and emotional swings, you can't help create consensus towards a goal.

One line that I keep going back to is "keep making new mistakes." As long as you don't repeat mistakes, you're on a path of learning and growth.

Unknown said...

Great reading Doc!

Suze Ingram said...

Hey Doc - I think we can also reflect when things go spectacularly well!
Suze :)