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Reflection is a verb

When I joined the TSI/TWI/Auckland Co-design Lab, I learnt that in doing 'innovation', we learn to do what we don't quite know (yet). This situation lends itself to a (Pacific) navigational approach, something I've written a bit about here and here. In my few weeks at Whānau Tahi this continues to hold true, as does my brother-in-law's wise exhortation of "allow the ocean to teach you to sail." My favourite expression of this has been through matua Rereata Makiha's Hautū Waka telling, via Roi and Ayla.

What I'd like to focus on today is the mechanism of this learning - how do we learn from the ocean?

In the last few years working with teams, I've found that a regular cycle of reflective practice is one of the most powerful tools to do. This is not a new idea, and there are many perspectives on how best to do this. What I've found works is:

  • Reflection is a verb. The point of the reflective loop is to choose the next set of actions. However good the reflective experience itself might be, it needs to result in better/different actions to continue learning. Reflection doesn't need to be profound - it needs to be useful.

  • Together is better. Psychological safety - the the belief that you won't be punished or humiliated for speaking up - seems easier to hold for *others* than it is for yourself. While personal reflection is useful, it is hard to be honest and/or kind to oneself. Holding space for each other's reflections uses our empathy muscles to build trust between people, raising the quality of the reflective sessions.

  • Rhythm is key. This plays out in two ways. The first rhythm is that of the reflective sessions - as frequently as possible, even if individual sessions are shorter. We've often opted for weekly 30 minute sessions over fortnightly 60 minute ones. The second rhythm to watch for is *in* the reflective session. This rhythm should simultaneously enable movement towards actions, and depth to draw up non-obvious insights.

A tool I've found to help teams do all these is a combination of John Driscoll's Reflective Cycle and David Kolb's Experiential Learning model.

This model focuses the goal of the reflection on the bigger picture of moving from Experience to Experiment, while simultaneously offering a way to explore the specifics of the reflective space.

The point of starting with experience is that it can be used at any level of fidelity or detail. It makes the reflection personal and real, rather than theoretical, and means people can start wherever they are. Phrasing the goal as moving to the next 'experiment' is also deliberate. An experiment is successful if you learn something from it. With time and repeated use, this hopefully dulls the fear of failure, and turns the action statements into hypothesis to be tested. The playfulness of experimentation takes away the sting of trying to be 'right'.

The loop has three parts. The WHAT section identifies the specifics from the experience that are worth reflecting deeper on. SO WHAT examines these specifics further, drawing out patterns that are not obvious at first. This is the longest part of the session, and where the insight comes from. NOW WHAT distils the insight into actions. Finally, these actions will be tested in the next experiment phase, which then creates an experience, kicking off a new cycle of reflection.

So far, we've tried this in small teams (3 to 7 people) working in social innovation spaces to a generally good response. In larger teams however, the time taken could quickly blow out. On the flip side, as people got used to the tool, we got sharper in our conversations, and quicker at going deep. I'd love to hear if others find this useful...or not. Does this tool help your team make reflection a verb?

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