Deep reflection for practitioners

Those that practice regular reflection, and have an operational system in place, witness some significant benefits in their development. At the very least, you will be more aware of how you behave – and while you might not always be pleased with the news – the increased accuracy of your insight from deep reflection will provide a more rigorous foundation on which to base your future decisions.

Many of those that have attended my leadership development workshops have reported significantly larger successes as a direct result of adopting the reflection habit. When I’ve coached clients, they also realise the potential of regular, structured reflection, and in the main this is sufficient to successfully achieve significantly higher than average performance.

However, there are two specific scenarios where the reflection habit needs to be extended. The first is when someone has been practicing reflection for some time. They have got into the habit of setting developmental goals and using their deep reflection data to plan for new experiences.

The second scenario is when an individual presents a demanding goal that will have considerable impact; this may require 3-5 years to achieve, and substantial, sustained effort to successfully attain. In such cases I tend to recommend adopting the reflection habit exclusively to begin with, but sometimes the time frame is so compressed that we need to add something else on top as well.

One of the important skills of reflection is the ability to separate the recording of facts from any interpretation that you might have ‘learned’ to use, to process the new experience. This presents two key advantages for your leadership development:

  • The ‘significant’ event is recorded accurately, with an emphasis upon fact. Which would you rather have to base your future decisions on – an account of a significant event seen through your normal ‘prejudiced lens’, or an accurate record of what actually happened?
  • Since the recording of the event is separated from any reflection post-processing, the reflection itself is more significant. You consciously reflect upon the data that you have collected, safe in the knowledge that you have worked hard to ensure that the facts of the experience have been collected.

Furthermore, when you have completed the reflection, you have two records; the original event, and your subsequent, considered thoughts. This is invaluable when you start to look for patterns in your own behaviour.

I’m of the opinion that leadership is a continual learning process. We may coach others, but when we actively engage in reflection we are actually coaching ourselves. But to qualify that specifically, it’s a continual active learning process.

The reason I say this is that many people appear to be satisfied with passive learning through experience, measuring their progress in terms of years of service or the rung of the career ladder achieved. I’m motivated to take charge of my learning, as I’m sure readers of this blog are also.

You will already have started looking for new opportunities to engage in, either to practice your newly found skills, or to experiment with new experiences. This often occurs at a subconscious level, as I witness with clients in coaching sessions.

As they grow more aware of their progress, they start to actively plan for development experiences, further building their experiential evidence. As I mentioned earlier, this is enough of a development-boost for a lot of leaders, but if you really want to master your own development, we’ll need to do a bit more.

Action planning

Action planning is useful when it is focused upon one, two, or at most three aspects of your development. It should be measurable (of course), used for a specific purpose, and discarded when the outcome has been achieved. 

More importantly, it must be relevant to your current and future states, and is therefore shaped by the other development tools that you might employ. Plenty of my workshop attendees complain about how difficult action planning can be, and that it seems to not be worth the effort as achieving a successful outcome can be sporadic.

It is likely that those who have not yet developed an accurate model of their self-awareness will find action planning problematic. Sort out a reflection habit, and you’ll have plenty of pertinent data to draw upon.

Finally, action planning needs to be considered part of a more holistic approach, but I’ll come back to that in a short while.

A strong theme of my approach to behavioural changes for leadership development, is that any new habits should be simple to adopt. So my action plans tend to be lists of objectives.

Each objective is SMART (Simple, Measurable, Achievable, Result-oriented and Timebound). For more on SMART objectives please consult Professor Google. But to be honest, the only aspect of SMART that my clients struggle with is Achievable.

It takes a fair bit of self-awareness to repeatedly assign yourself achievable goals (that mean something). Goals are either stratospheric, or just too safe. Safe goals are achieved easily, but the lack of stretch is does not promote effective personal development. If you’re still unsure as to how to progress, establish the reflection habit right now.

So far, we have a process in place to capture experiential data and reflect upon it in a structured fashion. We also have a simple means of expressing specific developmental objectives, with a focus upon delivery of outcomes. In the same way that structured reflection can be sufficient for many developing leaders, the addition of action planning, driven by themes that have emerged from the reflections, can provide added effectiveness.

But those who truly aspire to excel, can utilise their existing developmental habits to build a much more comprehensive, holistic system. One of the potential limitations of capturing reflections and formulating action plans is that there could be a mismatch between what the individual pursues, as opposed to what is required for a given situation.

I feel that the risk of objective mismatch diminishes over time, as individuals become more self-aware. But therein lies the problem. If the risk diminishes the more you do it, then you are most at risk when you start the process.

As a result, I tend to coach clients to adopt the reflection habit as a primary, discrete activity, without being overly goal driven at the outset. Early on, it’s more about self-discovery.

I’ve found that some people like a bit more structure to their learning when they start reflecting, and if they are used to a culture of action planning, then it’s important to insure against any over-enthusiastic development plans being created.

In my experience, an effective approach is to tackle the issue of critical self awareness head-on, by asking the individual to conduct a self appraisal. This needs to be quick and simple, to get the maximum benefit, and a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis can be a good starting point.

A better start, in my view, is a SWAIN (Strengths, Weaknesses, Aspirations, Inhibitors and Needs) analysis. This approach contextualises current strengths and weaknesses in terms of the future desires of the individual, and implicitly fires up the relevant planning neurons.

Used at the outset, structured reflection can be suitably constrained so as not to go too far off course, and the first set of developmental objectives are likely to be relevant to the initial self-assessment.

So what’s the problem with adopting this whole system from day one?

Well, it can be done, but the danger is that it becomes too much of a system, that needs to be applied in a prescribed way. When faced with such a fundamental change in personal development, a lot of people cry out for forms and flowcharts, in order to cope with the amount of change.

This more or less guarantees its failure. Whilst we need to use paper (physical or virtual) to make records, we should not fall victim to excessive administration.

An developmental leader embraces the holistic view. If any gaps exist, they are plugged with efficient processes that enrich the overall development process. But the same individual is also acutely self-aware, and adopts an incremental approach to enhancing learning. I favour such an approach when it comes to building a personal learning system.

First, build your self-awareness through regular, structured reflection. From the themes that emerge, use action planning to focus your attention on a constrained number of developmental issues. Then, add the SWAIN self-appraisal checks to the mix. Use each SWAIN to check your overall progress, and to diagnose any specific needs for your holistic development. In terms of frequency, you’ll establish your own schedule. But here is a suggestion:

  • Structured reflection – daily;
  • Action planning – as and when development issues arise;
  • SWAIN analysis – every  quarter (3 monthly).

To obtain an overall view of your learning requires a suitable container, in which all of your learning evidence is ‘kept’. Traditionally, artists keep evidence of their work in a portfolio, to illustrate how they have developed and to show what their capabilities are. This is similar to what we might want, except that it would be useful if the path of learning development could be observed.


The practice of journalling has been around for as long a people could write. If you develop a reflection habit, then you will need somewhere to record your experiences, draw conclusions and then plan your new experiments.

The experience of writing longhand can be cathartic. However, once the volume of entries starts to accumulate, it can become increasingly difficult to ‘mine’ your records to identify patterns. Coupled with the fact that some people are worried that either a journal is lost, or that someone else might read it, there is often some resistance to writing things down.

A common reaction to the prospect of regular reflection is: “I couldn’t possibly write down everything I feel, just in case it gets out”. It’s a shame that people feel this way, but I have two comments to make.

First, I am advocating reflection about how we develop as leaders, probably in the workplace. We are not talking about self-disclosure and deep therapy. Second, if you don’t want anyone else to read it, then there are methods that don’t require you to keep your journals locked away in a safe.

Using technology

More people have access to technology these days, and for most university employees a computer is at the centre of their work. Computers can help with the reflection habit, since we have lots of opportunities to use them, particularly if you own a smartphone.

This is my ‘secret’ to regular reflection: Every workday I will write for a minimum of 10 minutes before I read my email.

I could, of course, be actually sending an email to myself, that contains my reflection. No financial outlay, the records are kept electronically so they can be searched, the organisation ensures that they are backed-up, and I can access them wherever I have access to a network connection.

This is the simplest and cheapest approach which is relatively secure. If you send the emails to another email address then you would have to ensure that they were encrypted before you sent them – emails are the equivalent of postcards on the Internet as everyone can read them –  but if you send them to yourself, only the IT system administrator could read them.

Another alternative, is to use a free blogging service (such as Google Blogger or WordPress) with the privacy controls set so that only the author (me) can see it.

The use of a blowing tool has significant advantages for your organisation. The table below describes a workflow that will simplify your regular reviews. The simpler a tool is, the more you are likely to use it regularly.


Using a tool like Google Blogger

(or WordPress, etc.)

1. Collect – write notes at every opportunity, record fragments of conversations for later review.

Post frequently directly via the web, or through emails from your iPhone, internet cafe, PDA, etc.

At least 10 minutes per day before opening your email!

2. Review and reject – go back and look at what you have written. Sort the wheat from the chaff.

If you write one summary review every week, then that is at least 4 structured reflections per month.

To review quarterly, you need only look at 3 of the latest monthly review postings.

Review your postings for the week. Write a summary post and Label it (different blogging platforms have different vocabularies – it might be ‘tag’ or ‘category’). 

You might choose WeeklySummary as your Label for instance. If you are reviewing the month then the label might be monthlySummary. And for quarterly reviews …

Why do I need to add a label? Labels allow you to quickly sort your postings. When you come to do your first monthly review you just click on the weeklySummary Label. 

Then just read the 4 latest postings and conduct your review.

3. Refine and plan – use the reviews to create stand-alone pieces of writing. For example, after writing for a few months you might want to write a summary piece of how a new approach you have adopted has developed over a semester.

Now you can start to project forward and think about what you want to achieve with your writing.

Create a stand-alone post and label it ‘article’ or ‘potential’ or anything else that you can identify at a later date.

Think of these posts as more developmental; if you have an idea that is related to this post, then use the Comments link at the bottom of the post to record your thinking. 

This is especially useful when developing a theme for your development.

Workflow for reflecting with a web-based blogging tool.

At any point in time this tool serves as a snapshot of your current developmental needs, together with an explicit, reasoned narrative of your learning journey. It’s also evidence of the importance that you place upon continued development. Coaching managers understand this and use reflective practice to develop themselves beyond all expectations.

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