reflecting on reflection

Missing from most workplaces today is any time for reflection. Even events that are designed to promote learning, like the ubiquitous professional conference, ignore time for reflection. In these discrete time-based events, there is little time for reflection. Presenters hold back their knowledge in order to ‘deliver’ it just before the big official presentation. This presentation is followed by some immediate questions, discussions, and a quick break. Then it’s off to see the next presentation. Reflection, if it occurs, comes much later, and usually after the participants have gone home. It’s the same at work.

It seems that most of us are in a hurry today, and I meet few people who have read even a few good books lately and have had the time to reflect upon them. Fewer still have taken the time to digest new ideas and discuss their learning with others. There is always a need to balance action and reflection, but the latter seems to be losing out in many of our workplaces.

Much of the workday in a professional office is organized around meetings, calls, and getting things done. This is often interrupted dozens of times each day, requiring a re-focus on whatever it is people were doing before the interruption. Work, like professional conferences, is composed of many non-related  discrete, time-based events, often with one directly following the other.

This mirrors our children as they rush from class to unrelated class, focusing on nothing for more than one hour. Like school children, time for professional reflection is relegated to before or after work, but this is often taken up with commuting, squeezing some exercise time, and meeting household obligations.

Here is a typical example of inefficient knowledge-sharing at a conference.

A problem is presented in a plenary session and participants are immediately asked to brainstorm and give feedback. But why was the issue not presented weeks ahead of time? Probably because nobody would have reviewed it? What can be achieved in 10 minutes of thinking on demand? Not much. What is really achieved with 50 to 100 people in a room, a presenter and then questions from the floor? Nothing, other than the semblance of building and sharing knowledge. The conference rut reflects the workplace knowledge rut.

Time needs to made for sense-making, as in the PKM Seek > Sense > Share framework. Why? Because sense-making, particularly generating and acting upon creative ideas, will be the driving force in the near-future workplace. This is not a radical idea — Reflecting on Work Improves Job Performance —and the amount of reflection required in the network era will only increase.

21c work value

“Visualize the workflow of a physical job: produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce.

Now visualize the workflow of a creative knowledge worker: nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, flash of brilliance, nothing, nothing, nothing.” —Jay Cross

That spark of brilliance comes from reflection. Cycling is often the catalyst for my best ideas, as I am forced to disconnect from work, and even conversation. I call it cycle-therapy. We need to design something similar into our workplaces. More and more production work is getting automated. As many traditional jobs get automated, new work will focus on creativity and dealing with complex problems. But this type of work cannot be optimized through sheer brute force or a focus on efficiency. That was for the last century.

Today’s knowledge-intensive workplace needs to support Experience-Performance-Reflection. Creative work is not routine work done faster. It’s a whole different way of work, and a critical part is letting the brain do what it does best — come up with ideas. Without time for reflection, most of those ideas will get buried in the detritus of modern workplace busyness.

14 thoughts on “reflecting on reflection”

  1. Charles Jennings said that real learning is experience, practice, conversation and reflection. Therefore if “Work is learning and learning is the work”, reflection is a critical component in the work-learning relationship and it’s absence can be detrimental

  2. Reflective conversation helps to spark ideas lying submerged in the unconscious. The introduction of quiet spaces for conversation would be beneficial on many levels of creativity, social engagement and mental health. Who doesn’t benefit from a good coffee in a relaxed environment over stimulating conversation. Man is not a machine and we ignore the soul at our peril.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. An action learning experience without reflection is just an action experience. Similarly, we seldom learn and innovate in our work without affording ourselves an opportunity to reflect on our experience.

  4. Nice piece Harold. I shall use this for the basis of a presentation I am giving next month – I have in essence been asked to “reflect” and the above sets out the stall.

    You’ve encouraged me too to get on and buy a new bike!

  5. I definitely agree that time is not given for reflection. But as is evident in the comments, there should be opportunities for both individual and social reflection. In my field of public engagement (a site for adult learning) the latter is an important facet of deliberation.

  6. This article is on point!! I was yearning for this at a previous workplace. I totally agree that if employees have time to think and be intentional there would be more creativity and an improved work culture. Thanks for sharing!


Leave a comment


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.