Accelerate Your Learning with Reflection

By Kevin “KJ” Johnson, PCC.

“We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.”
– John Dewey, American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer

In the early dot-com years, I led a team of web professionals in the creation of what would eventually be hundreds of websites over a three-year span. At first, with every project completion we would have a ‘postmortem’ review of each deliverable, discussing what worked, what didn’t, and what we learned along the way. As the volume ramped up, we shifted to weekly debriefs, but soon even those reviews became scarce. Eventually the postmortem went away altogether–unless a client expressed dissatisfaction. My leadership questioned the utilization of our resources on “navel gazing” instead of increasing production. 

We only took time to reflect when there was a clear and present danger to a client relationship.

Fast forward to today. The idea of taking time to reflect after a project seems to be taboo to most organizations. The problem with this is that the absence of this reflective process limits the impact of any learning that could be taking place during and after a project has concluded. I’ve pitched this idea to many of my clients and I get nearly the same response: ”We don’t have time for that, KJ.” But there’s a strong case for making time to reflect on what went well and what could be improved on a project. Here are 2 reasons:

Reflection accelerates learning by making experience more productive

If you have the choice of doing more projects or taking a little time to review your last one, which would you choose? There’s a growing body of research that says you would begin to experience diminishing returns on your project-based learning. However, if you were to set aside time for intentional reflection, or what Harvard Business Review describes as “the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience,” there is tremendous upside. You’ll discover the nuances of your team dynamic, uncover inefficiencies and celebrate the overcoming of each obstacle along the way.

Reflection builds one’s confidence in the ability to achieve a goal

When you think on the lessons learned, you are also tapping into a form of automaticity–that function of the mind that likes to convert our behaviors into habits. The more you reflect on what you did well and what could be done better, the deeper the groove you create in your mind to repeat those productive behaviors. With repeated success comes increased confidence that future behavior will achieve the same results. 

So when you’re tempted to move quickly past the completion of a task or project, make the strategic move to invest a small chunk of your time to look back over your work through these three lenses: 

  1. Celebrations, to explore what went well, elevate high performance behaviors and big wins,
  2. Failures (yes, failures) to evaluate quality, systems, accountabilities and stakeholder experience, and
  3. Improvements, to determine what practices should stop, be started or continued.

One huge reason teams avoid such discussions is the inherent discomfort of sharing honest feedback. Have the courage to lean into this discomfort and invite your team to create an environment safe enough for everyone to grow from the conversation. The first couple of times it will feel a bit awkward, but with practice you and your team will begin to see an acceleration of your shared learning and ultimately, productivity.  

It’s easy to get caught in the cycle of firefighting and the tyranny of the urgent. As leaders, we must step back regularly to see the bigger picture–not just when things go wrong–but as a practice of becoming a truly lifelong learner and more broadly, a learning organization.  Harnessing the power of reflection will take your leadership–and the experience of your team–to a higher level.

Having a facilitator assist you with the reflection process can make it easier on everyone.  Contact Kevin to facilitate your reflection.