“Preparation and reflection must be the bookends of every experience we encounter as well as ones we offer our subordinates.” – Unknown
This is one of my personal favorite leadership quotes because it stresses the value of two often overlooked aspects of experiential learning. Preparing and reflecting are critical for maximizing learning from our experiences. Reflection, especially, is so often ignored in the actual execution of leader development, which I touch on in part II of this series.
This series aims to provide my perspective and lessons on what I’ve come to learn about reflection, specifically how to engage in it. Last week, in part III of the series, I shared several popular methods for reflection. Now, I provide a personal approach to incorporate a holistic reflective system into your learning and development. This is how I reflect on a routine basis.
Remember, reflection is highly individual and you may prefer to reflect in ways that I don’t and vice versa. My goal in sharing my personal reflective approach is to show you how certain reflective activity “puzzle pieces” can be pieced together to have a big impact. If you are new to this reflection series, I encourage you to start at the beginning, in part I, which introduces this abstract reflection concept.
My Reflective Mental Model
I use a very simple mental model when approaching my reflection. For clarification, a mental model is a way to define how we think about how something works in the real world; it gives a simplified structure on how we might approach our thoughts on a topic. There are numerous models for different topics, such as many different ones to help leaders approach organizational change.
I like to keep my reflective mental model simple. A simple model also makes it easier to naturally apply with little external support. I like using Terry Borton’s developmental framework (1970) during my different reflective activities. This framework asks three questions:
- What? This forces me to articulate what I’m reflecting on, whether that be an experience, learning new knowledge from a class or professional development session, or from new feedback I just received. Defining the source of the new “dots” helps add context to your reflection on it.
- So What? Why is this important? What did I learn? The “so what” question forces me to address and challenge any assumptions, attitudes, or current behaviors.
- Now What? Leaders need to have a bias for decision-making and action; we should have a strong orientation toward answering “what am I going to do about it” during our reflection. Reflection only becomes valuable if it improves something, which can include your attitude, your leader behavior, an organizational system, and so on.
Personally, my best unstructured thinking time is running. If I am not engaging in any sort of dreaded speed workout or listening to an audiobook/podcast, running is a natural reflective activity for me. Sometimes, even if I intended to listen to an audiobook or podcast during my run, my brain begins to ignore it and surfaces a load of random thoughts and emotions; many times, I have had to turn off my headphones (or switch to music) so that I can work through these thoughts that my subconscious is forcing for the forefront of my brain. Just two days ago, my two hour run allowed me to review recent experiences, ask the “so what” and “now what” questions, connect those thoughts to a few other “dots,” and walk away with some new ideas. These particular ideas ranged from thoughts on my fitness training plan for the coming winter, my unit social plans for the coming holiday season, and a possible future blog post about how to learn from your boss.
As I stated earlier, critical to the success of this unstructured thinking outlet is recording my ideas. I always have to have a means to record my thoughts while running; I never am able to remember them by the end of my run. Often on a run, you can find me stopped, standing on the side of the road or trail vigorously typing into my phone. If so, it’s safe to assume that I am typing an idea from my unstructured thinking.
Running is just my outlet for unstructured thinking; it may not be one for you. Such thinking can come during some dedicated quiet time, like over coffee in your favorite chair or couch, or during daily mindless activities such as walking your dog, cleaning dishes after a meal, your daily work commute, etc. I encourage you to consider how you can incorporate some unstructured thinking into your weekly routine.
Consolidating & Reviewing All of My “Dots”
Books (reading and audio), blog posts and professional article resources (check out my recommendations), and podcasts (find in my resources) are all major components to my personal leader learning strategy. A key method for me to “collect new dots” from those outlets is recording a significant amount of notes on personal thoughts and highlights of quotes from the particular resource. However, I’ve found that it is very easy to forget those new ideas or for my notes to get lost and ignored in the shuffle of daily life. So, I’ve developed a personal system to consolidate all of my new “dots” of learning and routinely review them. My system generally follows a process:
- When reading, I highlight quotes and take notes in the margins. When I listen to podcasts, I write notes on scratch paper.
- When I’ve completed the book, article, or episode, I’ll type all of my notes and quotes up into a Word document. I tend to do this semi-routinely, where I’m typing notes from a small buildup of recent resources. Typing notes out from books, lectures, leader development sessions, or podcasts is one additional way to reflect on it. While typing, I am deliberately thinking about it and adding personal ideas. I want readers to note that this is a considerable time consumer and you need to deliberately plan out time for something like this.
- I save my documents into a hierarchy of folders in my Dropbox App (which I explain below). By keeping them on my Dropbox, I am able to have digital access to these documents at any time, to include my phone, if needed.
- I also print out those notes and add them to my “Master Reflection Journal” (pictured below). Once a quarter, I set aside several blocks of time over one to two weeks where I take time to review all of my notes in my Master Reflection Journal. I don’t spend that week or two reading or listening to podcasts; I saturate my time in reflection, reviewing my notes, and don’t want to be overwhelmed by new information. By doing this, I am able to come back to those old notes with a new perspective due to new experiences. This helps me to further connect my “new dots” to old ones from my journal. During this process, I write down new ideas to look into moving forward. This method helps me blend ideas from different resources, so I’m not considering ideas just from one book, but am able to take a piece from one book and add it to another piece from a podcast or personal experience.
My Dropbox folder organization hierarchy generally follows that of my physical Master Reflection Journal. I divide notes into three main categories:
- General reflection notes: these are short reflection notes from singular events such as a lecture, blog posts, articles, podcasts, quotes, and so on. This is one large Word document that continues to grow each week. Every time I fill up a new page on the Word document, I print off that page to add it to my journal.
- Book notes: I make a new Word document with quotes and notes from each book.
- Major experience notes: following any major experience, I consolidate all of my key notes and reflections into a single document. Major experiences include job duties such as company command and key schooling opportunities like US Army BOLC and CCC. Further, when I come across ideas for future opportunities and duties, I keep notes on those in a separate Dropbox folder so they are recorded and consolidated. Currently, I have documents for thoughts on my next field grade job(s), which may be years down the road.
Peer coaching is one of my favorite reflective activities and is the primary way that I expand my ideas and make sense of them. I thoroughly enjoy talking out thoughts that I’m wrestling with and soliciting feedback from my peers that I trust and respect. I engage in both formal and informal peer coaching. Formally, I established a professional relationship with two colleagues that I trust and highly respect, where we meet for about 90 minutes every one to two weeks. We cover a myriad of topics to include personal and spiritual ones, but we spend a lot of time on professional topics and help one another work through friction points. Informally, I try to catch close colleagues over lunch or after work and spend some time reviewing what’s going on, often learning from one another’s unique methods; these can even be flash peer coach sessions that last mere minutes, but still offer value to your thoughts. Ultimately, my favorite peer coach is my wife! She knows me better than anyone else and has the highest level of earned authority to provide ideas and especially constructive feedback. She is always my go-to sounding board for work and life. If you’re new to this idea of a peer coach, check out my post about it here.
For me, blogging is my platform for journaling. As I address in the blog post about why I write, doing this forces me to deliberately think about an idea or reflection, complete the thought, and fully articulate it in a way for another person to understand it. Further, publishing my reflections encourages me to remain accountable to the thoughts I shared, which ultimately improves my leadership. In my blogging, I often link my current thoughts to previous posts I wrote (such as the hyperlink above), which is another way of connecting the dots during reflection.
That is my defined system for personal reflection and has taken me years to develop and refine. As I stated in the introduction, I share this not as a recommended model for others to follow. I share this to help you consider one way to piece together different reflective activity puzzle pieces to make a complete and coherent reflective system that is ultimately aimed at maximizing your learning as a leader.
In the next part, we conclude the reflection series by talking about how to incorporate reflection at the organizational level and to improve your organization’s ability to be a learning one. I’ll introduce a few activities that leaders can leverage to encourage their people, both at the personal and interpersonal levels, to reflect and maximize learn themselves, making the whole organization more effective and efficient.
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