Reflection is one of the hardest things for leaders to implement.
Even if leaders knew the value of reflection, it would be hard to implement. As it is, reflection is an unknown capacity that has enormous potential to accelerate learning. According to Jack Mezirow, founder of transformative learning theory, without reflection, there is no learning. My experience tells me he’s right.
At our last team meeting, my virtual team and I went through a process of reflecting on what is going well and what could go better. We have made great strides since our face-to-face meeting in January and our ability to talk together openly and honestly keeps improving. We challenge each other and disagree when we need to, inviting and welcoming all perspectives. It helps us create programs and develop online products and services that are better because of our collective efforts. Everybody has a different part to play and we coordinate and align our work to contribute our best.
I had to reflect on the many improvements we’ve made lately that help our collaboration. We’ve improved our technology, including collaborative software, a server setup to share documents in real time, and manage our projects. We’ve improved our team tools and processes. We are talking together well—inviting different perspectives and learning from them, which strengthens us as a team as well as our products and services.
Everyone spoke up and everyone acknowledged that there were things we could do better, like invite our quiet contributors to speak, task for help when we need it, and listen better. But, overall, we are doing well.
When virtual teams get together, they remain disparate parts of a big puzzle if they don’t include reflection. Reflection helps people understand each other, it enables insights to percolate through the group, and there are fewer misunderstandings and conflicts between people. If a conflict arises, it can be dealt with on the spot. Reflection is a process and, just like learning, it is a process that also has outcomes.
Reflection has positive outcomes of shared meanings, greater coordination, and clearer communications. When teams reflect together, they gain insights and coordinate their actions to accomplish change. Without reflection, teams still learn and coordinate action, but the cohesive interconnectedness just doesn’t begin to hum with excitement, like a neural net flowing with electricity. Reflection processes help people align and interconnect.
Reflection is both an individual and collective activity. Individually, people reflect on things and then bring their thoughts and ideas to a collective process of reflection. The individual and group interconnect. Individual thought is respected and invited; collective thought is encouraged and developed. A team needs to gain the capacity to think together by developing communication skills that include creating the ability to reflect together. Collective intelligence is fostered by face-to-face and virtual interactions and supported by online tools.
IT systems and applications provide valuable infrastructure for working together. There are lots of ways to reflect together with the support of technology:
- Circulation of a document for comments. The comments are collected and incorporated into the document.
- Meeting agendas and notes to ensure nobody misses important information.
- Project management (or who needs to do what by when within a guidance process).
- Virtual meetings through teleconferencing or videoconferencing.
- Collective writing through applications such as Google Docs that manages versions, allows comments, and tracks changes.
Technology is an important piece of the puzzle and helps geographically dispersed groups work together seamlessly. A conscious process of reflection is also essential for facilitating team learning. Innovation springs from the reflective space. And it takes a very strong leader to see the need to develop the capacity for reflection and to implement the processes.
People are usually in a hurry; empty silence is quickly filled. Sometimes the most awesome innovations spring from silence as people’s minds begin to resonate together and a collective intelligence begins to emerge.
A process of reflection helps us learn from what we have done. If we’ve made mistakes, we don’t have to repeat them. If we had successes, we can anchor the actions that helped us succeed. Whether on a virtual team or one that meets daily, asking how?, what?, why?, and who? questions are powerful.
“How did it go? How’s it going?”
“What can we do better? What got in our way?”
“Why are we doing this? Why should we be doing this?”
We rarely ask ourselves, Is the right thing to do?, and making sure what we are doing is correct is crucial. That’s when the who? questions are most valuable: “Who can support us? Who needs help? Who is the best customer for this?”
First, we have to ask the questions and then we have to listen to the answers. Whether a team shares the same room or works from different locations across the globe, our thinking power can be gathered in energetic patterns that help us do collective work with greater alignment. Reflection helps us connect more deeply than words alone can. When we gain the capacity to reflect together, we begin to attune with each other and our collective work is strengthened.