Consultants have short attention spans. We like to get in, get it done, and get out again so we can move on to the next project. This is in part because we bore easily and the grass looks greener in our next project but it is also due to our continued need for new business. Unless we return for a repeat performance, we get limited feedback from our clients and can neither judge the full effect of our work or nor learn what happened afterwards.
Because our skills are technical in nature, as time passes we develop a repertoire of assumptions, methods, and techniques which make it increasingly difficult to be open to the complexities we face. The mental models that guide our actions become more rigid and can result in what Schӧn calls a parochial narrowness of vision. We find ourselves offering solutions in search of a problem.
As Patton has commented, evaluators tend to go with a short-term quick fix rather than moving beyond surface issues to the deeper understanding essential for systemic change. We rely on single-loop learning to detect a problem, correct it, and improve immediate outcomes. This means-ends approach has no lasting impact on our practice and can even cause us to do the wrong things very well.
In contrast, double-loop learning not only allows us to correct the problem but also to question the assumptions, values, norms, and structures that underpin it. By turning our skills of observation and analysis on ourselves, we can use critical incidents and past mistakes as catalysts for change. Through reflective practice we can expand our assumptions, change our behavior, and bring our practice more in line with our values and beliefs.
But how are we going to do this? It’s easier to motor past our traumatic episodes and pretend that they never happened. Instead, we must use emotional intelligence and critical self-reflection to confront our technical errors, mistakes in judgment, and conflicted interactions. We must shift our frame of reference and deepen our understanding of the substance, forms, and patterns of our experience. We can ask reflective questions like the following:
- What am I concerned about?
- What does this say about my assumptions, values and beliefs?
- Where did I get these ideas? Why do I maintain them?
- Whose interests are being served?
- What constrains my view of what is possible?
- How might I do things differently?
- Going forward, how can I embed this change in my practice?
Reflective practice is double-loop learning in action. By thinking creatively about better outcomes, we can allow ourselves to experiment, innovate, and refocus, expanding our skills and adding value to our business in the process.
Here are a few ways to move beyond a quick fix mentality, to strengthen our reflective skills, and to foster innovation in our practice:
- Foster personal thought. Develop the habit of journal writing. Read widely to learn more about the human condition. Explore new genres such as literature from another country, or try fantasy, biography, or history—whatever you have not read before. Schedule creative times out. Whether it’s a concert, speaker, play, race, rally, or nature walk, do something every week to refill the well of your inspiration. By actively not thinking about a problem, creative solutions present themselves unannounced.
- Incorporate playfulness. Work and play are not mutually exclusive. A fun work environment can actually be more productive. How long has it been since fun was on your agenda? As von Oech has suggested, it may take a whack on the side of the head to get you thinking creatively about ways to enjoy yourself at work.
- Structure feedback. De-brief with your team and record lessons learned. Encourage your clients to reflect on their experience. Build a feedback survey into your project. Schedule a luncheon date with your client several months after project end to find out what happened after you left. Take a risk, be open, and ask, “What could we have done differently?”
- Seek peer support. Have a regular coffee date with other consultants and discuss common issues. Develop an informal learning circle to explore a new topic or book. Sponsor a think tank at your next professional conference and use the power of the group to solve a specific problem.
- Integrate knowledge translation. Moving beyond your final report, work with your client to understand how the knowledge generated by your project can best be disseminated and applied. Plan a KT phase as part of your proposal.
- Share your learning. Don’t wait until your solution is perfect. Share your emergent reflections through conference presentations, articles, and blogs. Attend webinars, courses, and other learning events and apply this information to your current problem. Mentor and teach others about your new-found skills and passions. Always seek out clients who love innovation.
QUESTION: What strategies for reflective practice have worked for you? How did your practice change as a result?
Barrington, G. V. (2012). Consulting Start-up and Management: A Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers. Los Angeles: SAGE.
Greenwood, J. (1998), The role of reflection in single and double loop learning. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 27: 1048-1053. Doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2648.1998.00579.x
Oech, R. von (2008). A whack on the side of the head: How you can be more creative? New York, NY: Hatchette Book Group.
Patton, M.Q. (2011) Developmental Evaluation: Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use. New York: Guilford.
Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc.
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