In which I outline three steps to become a reflective practitioner.
In his seminal work The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr Stephen R. Covey uses an example of a woodcutter felling trees with a blunt saw. The workman believes he is far too busy felling trees to take time out to sharpen the saw.
There are three levels of reflection: (1) taking time out to reflect, (2) reflection-in-action and (3) becoming a reflective practitioner. Each represents a more evolved application of reflection and each level of evolution aids organisational development to a greater and greater extent.
1. Taking time out to reflect
You are a busy professional – just like the woodcutter. You have been trained in the rigour required for your own profession, whatever your profession may be. How do you go about a task? Well, you probably draw of your professional training, expertise in your subject matter and experience in the real world. You may well have particular preferences in how you go about your work; you have become a great problem solver, and yet you may become stuck in your ways; you may also find there is tension between the professional rigour you seek to apply and the relevance of your specialist knowledge in the real world.
When I run facilitated learning sessions, individual coaching and group coaching sessions, the most significant benefit managers and leaders tell me they feel is finding space and time to think; to talk and listen to others with similar challenges. They are pining for more time out to reflect so they can become more effective when they are back at work.
Taking time out to reflect, think and plan is great; it can really help you get perspective. However, a lot can happen during the time you are taking out, meaning you go back to work with even more to do – even more trees to fell, if you will. You have taken time out to sharpen your saw, however it can blunt again very quickly when there is so much to do.
Reflection-in-action represents the next level. This is reflecting on your actions in-the-moment. It is like being a fly on the wall, watching you at work. You are doing and reflecting simultaneously. This takes practice. That said, it is the route to mastery of applying your professional discipline in the workplace because it helps you become aware of your implicit knowledge and to learn from your experience as it happens. It resolves the rigour versus relevance paradox.
3. The reflective practitioner
Professional mastery goes beyond rigorous problem solving using the science of your discipline. It requires what Donald Schon (author of The Reflective Practitioner) calls a “reflective conversation with the situation”. It enables thinking and doing to feed each other so that every action gives pause for reflection. Doing this requires practice and the benefits are enormous. For the professional in business, it equates to wisdom and influence and calmness. You not only act with discipline, mindfulness and mastery, you are also aware at every moment why you have acted that way and are more likely to get the outcomes you intend.
Mastery of OD practice, where you are intervening in organisational systems to effect change, requires this level of reflection.
You do not need to do leave the office for a day’s workshop to reflect; you can build time into your daily or weekly routine to do it, right at your desk, in a break-out area, over lunch, going for a walk, whatever suits you; you are not too busy to look after yourself.
Practise reflection-in-action; be the fly on the wall observing you in action, sense the dynamic between you and others. When you can do this, you are on your way to becoming a reflective practitioner.
OD thought leader: George Ritzer (b. 1940)
Not strictly an OD thought leader, American social theorist George Ritzer examined the rationalization of society and coined the term McDonaldization. His thinking has profound implications for organisational development.
Following Henry Ford and McDonalds Restaurants lead, many organisations have reengineered their processes for efficiency. McDonaldization is rationalisation taken to its logical conclusion. Efficient, logical sequences of business processes produce results that are predictable in quality, calculable in quantity and controlled. These are the hallmarks of McDonaldization: efficiency, predictability, calculability and control.
However, over-rationalizing processes has unintended consequences: in McDonalds, the term fast food is literally a misnomer: the over-rationalized process requires customers to order via self-serve terminals and wait in long queues to be served relatively unhealthy, unappetizing food.
In our desire for the components of rational organisational systems, we have allowed unintended consequences that do not serve our human interests:
- Efficiency does not allow for individuality and sneakily turns customers into workers. This has now happened in supermarkets too, where we are expected to self-check out
- Predictability means uniformity. You only need look at the typical high street to see the same rows of brand names, limiting both our choice and the expression of creativity
- Calculability favours quantity over quality. Two-for the price of one on all-but-rotting fruit, anyone?
- Control means deskilling the workforce, automation and loss of jobs.
We have inadvertently dehumanised our workplaces and our society.
Back in 1993, Ritzer saw the move to over-rationalized systems as inexorable. We have somehow found a way to cope with all this rationalization – nay crave it – as it reduces risk to us as individuals in society. Why risk an independent coffee shop when you can guarantee a certain quality from Starbucks?
Some 25 years later and the robots are coming. Is this simply the next step in over-rationalizing our organisations and society? Or perhaps we might find a way deploy digital solutions to deal with the rationalized elements of organisational life without dehumanising our workplaces and free human potential by inviting creativity and innovation into our working lives?
In the digital age, I believe OD can help systematically create workplaces that are more human. Stop tinkering with processes for efficiency and control and start working on the whole system; put customers at heart of what we do and enable and empower staff to be creative.
Next time: S is for Supervision