Always be reflecting

5 minute read

"We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience."
John Dewey

What's the use in reading 20 books if you didn't learn anything from them? We don't just learn by doing things, we learn when we reflect on those experiences.

If you want to get better at what you do, you should have a practice for reflecting on what you've been doing. And when I say 'practice for reflecting', I don't mean retros (sorry agile folks) and I don't mean formal work performance reviews.

That's not to say you shouldn't participate in either of those practices. A good retro can provide a team value - but often a retro exists at a team level and won't give you a deep understanding of how you personally could improve. Formal performance reviews have their time and place, but you can't expect to examine yourself with the same amount of honesty when your pay, or your next promotion depends on it.

How to build reflection into your 1:1's

If you want to truely improve, reflection should be a habit, not a one off. That's the other problem with using a formal performance review as a reflection - it often only happens once or twice a year. In fact, at a smaller company you mightn't get one at all.

I've found 1:1's offer a great chance for reflection. While the typical 1:1 may be a casual catch-up, there's value in having a slightly more formal 1:1, on a regular basis. I call these 'Reflect 1:1's' and put them in the calendar as 'Reflect 1:1's' - this sets up the expectation that you're going to be doing some reflecting.

Any questions that prompt people to reflect on what they've been working on can work in these conversations. I like to mix it up a bit, but the most interesting things to think about tend to be those that you haven't thought about as you've been working.

For example, as designers, one of the key stakeholders my team works with are the product managers. There's always tension between product managers and designers - this is a good thing by the way, providing it's healthy. In this instance, a great way to reflect is to think about what you would do if you were the product manager.

This immediately builds empathy by putting yourself in their shoes and also sharpens your critical thinking skills - maybe you're putting design at the centre of the world and your perspective changes from their point of view.

Work in gratitude for extra benefits

Reflection shouldn't be all about you. A great question to ask is: 'who has helped you out in the past few weeks?' This encourages practicing gratitude and being thankful for other members of the team. Even in the worst of weeks, usually this question is an easy one to answer - 'do I have to pick just one person?' being a common response.

Track your levels

Having a semi-formal reflection conversation on a regular basis, you can track things like energy levels or focus and try and find patterns. What work do people like? What gives them energy? Are there issues within the team that need addressing?

How you measure this is up to you - but I've found recording this, even on an arbitrary scale, helps us have some baseline when tracking how someone is feeling over time.

Create the culture you want to see

These sessions are private between the two people in the 1:1. However the idea is that by reflecting on and showing gratitude for team mates, it creates a culture where showing gratitude is the norm. If someone is doing a good job, let them know. If someone helped you out, tell them.

One of our teams most popular 'all-hands' meetings occurred at Christmas last year, when we spent the whole hour just reading out thank you post-it's that our team had written for each other. This took zero time to prepare, helped the team bond and also encouraged reflection and gratitude.

Example 1:1 questions

  • If you were your product manager, what would you have done differently?
  • Who helped you out in the last few weeks?
  • What's one thing you will do differently next month?

You can do this working solo too

While all the above I've talked about in the context of a 1:1 or a team meeting, there is nothing to stop you creating a template and doing this yourself. It can be structured like the above, or unstructured.

I was chatting to a peer a couple of years ago about a project that I was working on, where I was under a strict deadline. I had to do a bunch of customer interviews, synthesising and present some insights to our senior leadership team. I was the only designer on the project. It's hard enough to keep your biases in check when you're doing research as part of a team, but as a solo researcher, it's even more challenging.

His advice to me came from his personal experience - keep a research diary that you can reflect back on every few days. This gave me the chance to (a) reflect and think about what I had done as I recorded it into the diary and (b) have a record of my thoughts and decisions which would help when presenting back the work later - invaluable with the time frame limitation I had.

Right now, we need this

If you can relate to this article at all, make it one that you take action on today. Reflect on someone who has helped you, especially through the incredibly tough circumstances we all find ourselves in at the moment.

Make a point of private messaging one person on your team who you're thankful for or who has done a good job and tell them. It costs you nothing and could make their day.

And remember, ABR. Always be reflecting.

Further reading

I was reflecting on a few different things I've read as I wrote this. If this interests you, these books are worth a look: