Why is Reflection So Hard to Do Well?

Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.

Flatt & Scruggs

Daylight dwindles, leaves spiral down, creatures big & small prepare for winter. Our annus horribilis is coming to a close. In a normal year, it would be time to hit the PAUSE button and reflect:

  • What were our goals this year?
  • What was our plan?
  • What worked? What did not work & why?
  • What have we learned?
  • How do we apply what we’ve learned?

Do these questions apply for 2020, a year like no other?  Yes, of course, but we have to supplement them with some other questions:

  • Did we put the Safety of our people, customers, and community first?
  • Did we stick to our core values?
  • Did we recognize problems early? Did we react quickly and intelligently?
  • Did we adjust our strategy and activities in a thoughtful way?
  • Did we stick to our management system? Were we disciplined round core processes?

There is a saying: Who you are on a bad day, is who you are. In the same way, how we have behaved this annus horribilis teaches important lessons and can help us get stronger.

Such reflection is hard, certainly for me. It’s much easier to pretend, deny, and deflect. It’s easier to sweep problems under the rug, or to jump to conclusions, and false countermeasures. Ironically, the smarter a management team, the more prone it is to such behavior. (Is the attitude, ’We’re so smart & successful, that the basics no longer apply to us’?)

The great country music duo, Flatt & Scruggs, put it well:

“Everybody wants the answer, but nobody wants to ask why. Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die”

Why are we like this? I defer to spiritual leaders and psychiatrists. My intuition tells me it’s hard-wiring, and endemic to the human condition.

In any event, what can we do about it?

1) Recognize & accept we’re not good at reflection.

A color-blind person accepts she can’t see certain colors, and adjusts accordingly.
Let’s admit, “Look, we’re not good at reflection, or at looking at things objectively. We see what we want to see. We often jump to conclusions & half-baked countermeasures.”

Such humility usually blunts the worst of our excesses.

2) Build reflection into our management routines.

After every major project, launch, strategy, cycle — hit the PAUSE button and have a short reflection meeting where in we ask the above questions. What was the objective? What was the plan? What actually happened? Why did it happen and what can we learn from it? Over time it becomes part of your muscle memory.

Having a so-called Lighthouse, a safe visual place, wherein senior leaders reflect on the above questions in a frank open way, is a tremendous enabler.  So is having a tiered management system comprising regular team huddles around a visual board is also a great help.  (We have a number of blogs on the Lighthouse and tiered management system).

So here’s a challenge to all of us. Pull in your team and reflect on the questions above. Answer them honestly and share what you’ve learned. Then apply them.

Have a safe & prosperous 2021.