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Good Things Come to Those who Reflect

by Kimberly Carlson

Open any newspaper this time of year and you’ll see many “Best of” headlines – Best classical music, our most popular recipes of the year, top films of 2022, 15 best book covers – there are even self-referencing headlines highlighting that newspaper’s best articles for the year. There is something about the end of a year and the anticipation of the new one to come that is ripe for reflection. Times of transition or change can be happy, think weddings, job changes, graduations; but many are often painful, such as death of a loved one, a divorce, sickness, loss of a job. Sometimes, change can be both positive and negative: job changes lead to moving away from loved ones, divorce or loss of job forces someone out of a negative situation. Further, many people can feel trepidatious about the future – the fear of the unknown.

Transitions don’t just happen in our personal lives. We experience change throughout our professional careers and organizations, too – projects start and end, personnel leave, new team members onboard, some programs have annual seasons, external environments force companies to pivot, and organizations are acquired. If organizations stay stagnate, many times they become irrelevant and shutter (e.g., Blockbuster).

For any transition to be successful, organizational leaders must learn to manage the change. That doesn’t mean that leaders can control all the elements of change, especially if those factors are outside of the organization. However, it does mean that leaders can help their people be more intentional about their decisions and processes to learn from what has happened and to make proactive decisions to move forward in the future. Reflection is a key practice in the change management process.

By reflecting on the past, you might uncover previously unseen consequences of choices and behaviors. “Hindsight is 20-20”, right? While in the midst of a situation, it’s not always possible to stop and truly see what is happening. By considering the decisions made, the reasons they were chosen, and the outcomes from those choices, we can connect the various elements of all that has occurred and improve future planning.

One of my favorite learning models is A-O-R. In this process organizational leaders think about what they did (Action), they look at the results or consequences of those actions (Observation), and then Reflect on the significance or meaning of the entire situation. Through each of these steps, the team and organization continue to have experiences and move forward towards their goals. This A-O-R process is a constant “Spiral of Experience” according to Richard Hughes, Robert Ginnett, and Gordon Curphy, authors of Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience. It is through this spiral of experience that leaders can, and should, continue to learn and develop over time.

Unfortunately, many of us spend too much time on the action part of the model and not enough time observing and reflecting. It is imperative that leaders build in time to observe and reflect, so that they can better plan for the future – a fourth step I would add to the model: A-O-R-P (Action, Observation, Reflection, and Planning).

Times of change and transition sometimes force our hand to build in time for that reflection. Ideally, we spend time doing it on a regular basis, daily or weekly. Like an exercise routine – a one-time marathon is great, but it doesn’t build the lifetime endurance you need for a healthy productive life. We really need to add exercise to our daily schedules. After time, we stop thinking we “have” to do it and just accept it as part of our routines. Incorporating reflection into your daily routine will become a regular part of your professional life. In the end, your organization and team will better learn from the past, plan for the future, and accomplish your overall strategic goals.

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