In Order to Learn, Pause to Reflect Regularly

How do we learn in a work environment? From conversations with colleagues, partners, beneficiaries, documents, and multiple other sources. However, most of what we learn at work is through experience, our own and that of others. Through regular Pause to Reflect sessions, we can nurture organisational knowledge, draw lessons learned, and improve how we learn.

“Experience is inevitable. Learning is not.” 

In order to truly learn from our experiences, we must take the time to pause and reflect. Reflective employees contribute to organisational learning, which is further enhanced when regular reflection is embedded in group or team practices. There are a number of proven methods: some are short and informal, e.g., a conversation amongst team members after completing a task or activity, also known as an After-Action Review; and others are much more lengthy, structured and formal such as Retrospect.

The shorter, informal sessions are most useful to building a culture of rapid learning and adaptation within a team, and the lessons learned during the session are expected to be immediately put into practice. At the same time, a Retrospect is usually conducted at the end of a project of a significant duration and covers a significant scope of activities. It may be scheduled over several hours or even days. These are great for consolidating lessons learned during the whole project, and the lessons are likely to be useful to other ongoing projects or to the design of new projects. 

Regardless of the duration and scope of the group reflection activity, the questions are essentially the same:

  • What was supposed to happen?
  • What happened?
  • What went well?
  • What did not go as planned or did not go well?
  • What are the lessons? What can we do differently in the future?

Consider the Context 

If insights from the group reflection activity are being documented and intended for use by other teams, it is very important to provide as much context as possible. The context particularly matters when organisations try to replicate experience based on lessons, which may cause more damage if context has not been considered. It also helps identify who, within the organisation, might need to be particularly aware of the lesson or needs to act on the lesson (more on the Importance of Lessons Learned later).

Learning through experience requires purposeful group reflection. In organisations, embedding a simple practice of regular Pause to Reflect sessions is an essential way to build a learning culture and institutionalise Knowledge Management (KM). The practice should also be thoughtfully incorporated into annual work plans, KM strategy, and other strategic documents, and applied throughout the project cycle, including during project planning and design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and reporting. 

Contributor: Dr. Barbara Fillip

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