To succeed in today’s complex, technology-saturated operating environments, organizations must become agile and adaptive. To remain so, organizations need to commit to being learning ones.
Just as reflection is an essential part of our individual leader development, learning organizations require a formal approach to “organizational reflection” to continue to learn, adapt, and succeed. I consider organizational reflection as a process that calls select groups of members to spend critical time away from their routine work to think on and capture important insights on organizational issues at many different levels in order to interpret experiences and organizational structures, clarify lessons learned, and think on the essential ways such lessons must be applied in the future.
Moreover, just as personal reflection requires us to deliberately allocate time and focused attention to thinking, so too must organizational reflection. Leaders must ensure time and space is dedicated to this collective level of learning to help make sense of our organization’s experiences and decisions, clarify what we’ve learned, and determine how and why we must apply this in the future toward improved effectiveness.
Why Organizational Reflection is Important & What it Accomplishes
The value of collective reflection is seen across three levels of an organization: value for the organizational leaders, for the whole organization itself, and for individual team members. I think it is important to understand the details of that value across all three first.
The value for leaders. Organizational reflection offers the following benefits for leaders:
- Creates a great opportunity for rich bottom-up feedback on perceptions of the organization and its performance from lower-levels. This can provide the “ground truth” on how things are going.
- It removes the leader from this important feedback loop, which can increase team members’ willingness to be more honest, transparent, and bold in their reflections. This can improve member self-sufficiency, ownership of thoughts, and commitment to formed ideas for the future.
The value for the organization. Through collective reflection, the organization achieves the following:
- It improves organizational clarity. Such clarity (things like who we are, what we do, why we do it, our priorities, and how everyone’s daily efforts contribute to those ends) is paramount for effectiveness and unity of effort across the organization. Unfortunately, such clarity is so often ignored or never achieved.
- People buy-in when they are afforded the opportunity to weigh-in. Collective reflection provides those opportunities for everyone to weigh-in on many different aspects of the organization and current challenges, improving individual member buy-in to the organization and its efforts.
- It encourages a culture of innovation and critical thinking across all members and levels (remember agile and adaptive organization).
- By making these reflective activities iterative over time and having members talk about the organization more and more, it improves their alignment to the organization’s vision, shared values, and espoused goals. Clarity and buy-in leads to alignment.
Finally, value for individual team members. By engaging in organizational reflection activities, your people acquire the following:
- Team members are encouraged to engage in their own personal reflection. Now, with members enacting collective and personal reflection, we are developing the organization at-large (macro-level) and individual leaders by making our people better (micro-level).
- A key aspect of reflection is self-authorship and meaning-making – creating our own revelations and thoughts, not merely receiving others’. By getting team members more comfortable and competent in doing that, it empowers them to become more authentic leaders. The organization will continue to benefit with team members who are confident and effective in their authentic leadership styles, not wasting personal capacity walking on eggshells with others or second-guessing the value they bring.
- Through these formal reflection activities, members build their confidence and comfort to speak up and share ideas, concerns, and challenges. This eradicates organizational silence, improving an essential culture of accountability and feedback across members, teams, and the organization (up, down, and across).
What Organizational Reflection Can Look Like: Ways & Ideas
With a better theoretical understanding of what organizational reflection is and the value it creates across our teams, below are some tangible ways that we can action these activities within our own contexts:
- Conduct a broad organizational diagnosis through a “working / not working” model. Adapted from an activity that I learned from Next Jump, small groups spend defined time listing out all the things working within the team or organization; this applies to all levels and aspects, there is no idea too big, too small, or that is off the table. Then, they repeat for all the things not working. After both extensive lists are created, members vote on their top three choices for each list. Lastly, small groups deep-dive into those selected issues to determine root causes for each: what leads these things that are working the best to be so and how can we apply those principle to other areas? What leads the things to be the “least working” and how do we address it?
- You can provide a specific prompt for groups to answer. For example: last year with my West Point Cadet company, I had small groups create a robust answer to the question, “what does an ideal Bulldog look like, what do they do, and what is most important to them?” (Our company mascot is the Bulldog). This activity and their answers helped us clarify who we are as a company, what’s important to us, and then figure out where we fall short in those areas. Certain prompts can also offer creative ways to solve organizational problems or discuss the “what’s next” for the group’s future.
- Have members sharp shoot, refine, and/or improve the organization’s core beliefs: our vision, mission, values, goals, strategy, and culture. It makes the organization more effective, increases shared clarity, solicits bottom-up feedback, and improves member buy-in and alignment to who we are. It just provides an opportunity to discuss what we need to change (if anything); it doesn’t mean we have to accept every idea.
- Diagnose your organization in accordance with a model that you introduce at the beginning of the activity. For example, you could teach Schein’s three levels of organizational culture to your people (it is a simple model that you can teach in about 20-minutes). Then, have them diagnose the organization within that framework, dedicating small groups to each of the three levels. This leads to conversations about the degree of cultural alignment: what aspects of our culture are or are not aligned to what we want them to be or that we think they need to be. This method also provides your people with a new and common way of thinking of the organization, which can improve the quality of future “diagnosis” conversations.
Finally, through my experiences in practicing these activities, I’ve found that leaders must oversee three important aspects to ensure sustained organizational impact:
- Leaders must create the time and space for these organizational reflection activities. If leaders don’t secure time and physical space for these, they will not occur. We make time for what is important; if we value these activities, we must dedicate focused attention – time and space. Further, leaders must provide essential resources to make the activities engaging and effective like whiteboards and efficient collaborative spaces. I like to schedule these “off-site” as much as possible. Also, a sustainable model can be to conduct these activities once a quarter or semi-annually, alternating types of activities every time.
- Have members conduct an “out-brief” at the end, reporting on what their small group discussed to the larger group (if applicable). It facilitates further discussion and challenge of ideas.
- Leaders should follow-up these activities with a post-reflection report; it helps clarify the ideas and reflections shared, especially if the activities occurred in multiple small groups. Through a consolidated report, members can see what conclusions other groups came to, etc. (and provides insight to those that may have not participated if a select population engaged in the activity). I’ve also learned that it is easy for people to talk about great ideas and share challenging, innovative thoughts in these collective reflection activities, but follow-through often falls short; great ideas tend to die when people leave the room. I found that by sending out this follow-up report a few days or a week later can help bring people back to their great ideas shared…which they have likely already forgotten. It also maintains responsibility for action on those that created the idea (ownership), not outsourcing it to some other “they” entity. Finally, by sharing these reports with everyone, it helps them feel heard from their leaders. Most commonly, I send the reports in an email to the whole organization (including those that did not participate for awareness), simplifying the report in a PDF or PowerPoint.
- Lastly, leaders must lead the integration and materialization of ideas, ensuring follow-through. While I prefer to challenge the team members that created the ideas to own and follow-through with them, I found that these efforts need leader support and initiative. If you, the leader, don’t show an interest in seeing these ideas come to life, don’t expect anyone else to.
So, I first challenge leaders to commit time and space to engage in an initial organizational reflection activity, applying or adapting ideas shared above. Please let me and other readers know how it went if you do! Then, in the theme of innovation and self-authorship, I challenge leaders to share new and better ways to address organizational reflection or to build learning organizations. This is how we get better.
Lead well, friends.
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