But how does one find the time “to wander”? Frankly, how does one even find the time to pause between the fast-paced, “whack-a-mole” productivity required by life in the digital age? Is it possible? Is it necessary? Is it valuable?
After a very full 2016, I have been reflecting on the reality that between work and family, life is super busy but there is so much more I want to do and accomplish. So how do I squeeze more into an already packed schedule without increasing stress and strain? I think the answer is actually carving out more down time, more time to both “catch my breath” and learn from previously created wheels. This may seem counter-intuitive, but I have growing confidence that more negative space, more unscheduled space, more reflective space will allow me the critical time to be even more productive and to accomplish more, better. I’m now consciously working on making the connections from my personal reflective time, often in the form of jogs with my dog, journaling, or mindfulness meditation to my professional work in outcome management, where the reflection is more a practice of connecting dots into a systemic whole.
This connecting dots idea is an intentional effort to open receptors, consider past life experiences, and then incorporate the resulting “ah ha moments” into current efforts. It is the counter-balance to the evaluative notion of “evidence-based practice”, where reflective practice would fall into a category termed “practice-based evidence”.
I was first introduced to this phraseology, “practice-based evidence” at the 2014 Symposium on the Future of Evidence in a talk by Tony Bryk, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as he and the other Friends of Evidence discussed the limitations of RCTs and the need for a broader acceptable definition of evidence. “Practice based evidence” has been more formally defined as “high-quality scientific evidence that is developed, refined, and implemented first in a variety of real-world settings” (Duke University Health Sciences, 2007). For purposes of this blog exploration, I am using it to describe the necessary balance with other forms of evidence that comes from thinking deeply about how personal experiences tie together into patterns of meaning that can inform and improve future practice.
This concept of reflective practice and the resulting practice-based evidence stayed with me and in the same year as the Evidence Conference, I began to develop my thinking around the ideas while writing a speech for a social sector impact conference in Sydney, Australia. I used the theme of “breathe, think, act outcomes” as a recipe for sustained energy and breakthrough results. I encouraged practitioners, funders and consultants to connect their learning from one project to the next and to draw out the learning, both successes and challenges that may be patterned. To use those now conscious patterns to inform a better next round of programming and decision-making, as a necessary supplement to other forms of evidence.
As part of my own learning process, I revisited some of these ideas and further explored them for a different audience last fall during a keynote address at the University of Illinois, for over 100 continuous quality improvement (CQI) professionals. At the CQI conference, my kick-off talk sought to frame the topics in the broader terms of creating a learning culture. Many of the primary questions being asked and addressed throughout the sessions tended to be technical, detailed, and micro-level or tactical in nature. While these questions and sessions are critically important to the accomplishment of everyday tasks, my argument was that a wider toolkit, including reflective practice, leads to more and better answers, adaptive approaches that facilitate the solving of broad-based concerns. Reflective practice can lead to more satisfying and longer-term solutions on the journey to high performance, including strategic decisions, organizational development, issues of team cohesion, and even program design, when combined with other forms of data and information. The best way to arrive at answers to these complex questions is to drill down deep into the question, to gather as much data and evidence as possible to inform the answer, and then pause, pull back, breathe deeply, and consider personal and professional lived experience – practice-based evidence. This last step is the most important and in some ways the hardest. We need to consider all of the rationale, subject-specific research, siloed approaches and funding streams and then reflect, consider past experience, and trust our own wisdom.
In addition to discussing growth mindset and other generally accepted notions of learning, I also quoted the 1995 Alanis Morissette hit song, “You Learn”, where she emotionally sings, “You live, you learn, you love, you learn, you cry, you learn, you lose, you learn…” I pondered what was missing from her equation and concluded that I don’t think you actually learn much, certainly not enough to change course, unless you reflect on all of those life experiences and actually integrate them into an understanding of what they are teaching. Continuous quality improvement has to start with making our lived experiences conscious. By taking the time to gain the knowledge that comes from experience is when wisdom forms. We can then consider what could have been different and to cause a different result in the future.
So intellectually we can accept that decision-making is better in work and in life if time is taken to reflect, at the least to truly consider the potential benefits and consequences. Yet, in our harried existence of reflexive, reactive decision-making, it’s far too easy to rush this step and miss the opportunity for strategic, proactive decision-making. Sometimes we get it right, but if we get it wrong, it can mean the difference between failure and success for medium to long-term decisions.
Even if it makes sense to carve out the time and even if it might lead to greater results, you may be left thinking, “Who has time for reflective practice?” How does one translate a theoretical goal into tangible practice? Well, I am not arguing for a full off-sight retreat or even a 90-minute meditation (nice and powerful as both of those may be). Instead, I am making the case for taking time, small bits of time, protecting time, on a regular basis to think through key decisions in a way that draws upon inner wisdom. And I am arguing that this time for reflection needs to be formally linked to our work and lives, as an integrated daily practice. You can’t run a marathon, without building upon tens or hundreds of smaller runs, and the same is true with reflective practice.
And what is incredible about breakthrough thinking is that it often happens in a flash! All of a sudden, it clicks and the pieces seem to fit together. The understanding of the pieces took long, hard focused effort, but the brilliance and elegance of seeing how they all fit together requires a quiet mind and quiet space.
So, how do we do initiate this reflection, given all the other things on our plates? I’m proposing some low-impact, simple ideas to get started. There will be time to develop this theme in blogs throughout this year, so I hope you’ll let me know how it’s going for you. The key is to find ways to apply past experiences to new situations, to learn from past experiences and appropriately apply that core learning to new and unique situations. Without the reflection, true learning becomes difficult and lasting improvement really challenging. Reflective practice works as a catalyst for proactive change when it’s simple, small, sticky, and sustainable.
So, here is my first suggestion for everyday awareness and reflection: When you have your morning cup of coffee or tea, rather than gulping it down while checking your phone and catching up on email or the news headlines, what if you closed your eyes and focused on a specific organizational or programmatic issue? What if you let the warmth, pleasing smell and familiar flavor create an opportunity for space, protected time to envision a series of paths to mitigate that issue? Perhaps it’s a process of setting a positive intention, something you could even accomplish by the end of the day. What if you considered other past experiences tied to this issue, directly or loosely, and what worked well and what did not and started to infer some meaning?
Then, what if toward the afternoon, when you enjoy your afternoon cup, you reflected on those early morning thoughts and considered how far you moved toward your issue or intention, what got in the way and how you might get back on track, perhaps even before you finish your work for the day/night?
My goal in this suggested practice is two-fold: first, from a content perspective, that one takes the time to consider a specific learning goal and then reflect on how you made incremental movement toward its achievement, considering your past experiences and applying your own wisdom to the new situation. And second, that this effort toward reflection is baked into your daily practice rather than an added burden, such that it becomes common practice. Instead of adding one more thing to an already long list, simply harness an already habituated small activity and infuse it with the negative space for connective, reflective thinking.
I consider reflective practice as inextricably linked to outcome management. Better results happen if we take the time to learn from the difference between intended/desired outcomes and actual results. If we accept that that results in the social sector always have twists and turns and are rarely sustained exactly as predicted, then the necessary complement to having the right people in the right positions, solid program design, and celebrating successes, is making sure there is time to think about what isn’t working and most importantly, the reasons why. This represents key learning and allows real experiences, mixed with a necessary dose of adaptability, to work their way into the next round of improvement efforts.
Although I have explored various techniques of reflective practice for many years, I believe it can be accessible to everyone. I’ve seen many clients and colleagues over the years who desperately want to carve out this type of time but cannot figure out how it would work in reality. So, this initial idea is an attempt to meet you where you are, with a morning cup of something wonderful and to slow it down, even for a few moments. Make it more intentional. Think about a past experience that worked well. Build on that idea. Breathe and think about how you want your day to unfold.
Perhaps you will feel guilty as it may feel like an undeserved luxury. Perhaps, it will feel like stolen time. Or, perhaps it will feel like a warm embracing blanket, a clean desk, even an epiphany. Just maybe, this simple reflective practice might catalyze some positive changes in your attitude, actions, and accomplishments. And once you own it personally, it might just change the results for your program or even your whole organization.