What is really Reflection?



I am intrigued as I heard a colleague explaining what reflection really means.   I have not really thought about it, and I like her definition.   I got to make a note here.

‘Reflection is not about re-telling or summarizing.   Reflection is about not about reviewing which means summarizing and evaluating.   Reflection is abut the question ‘What does the experience mean to me?’

It is more elaborated than how Oxford Dictionary defines it – ‘Reflection = Serious thought or consideration’.    Perhaps the ‘What does the experience mean to me?’ version is more applicable in the learning context.

Relating to this, we had this conversation on the topic of Reflection in a very reflection-friendly venue.  There are a lot of space for individual or group jointly to talk about ‘What does the experience mean to me?’    To be more specific:

  • There are a lot of quiet corners or rooms with chairs or sofas in circle
  • Natural light is available in most rooms
  • The interior décor (lines and colours) is ‘clean’ and simple
  • There is a library full of business books
  • The venue is next to the nature – a forest and a stream

But most importantly, there was no other group in the same building.   I am talking about the big barn (in the picture above) with just some 30 of us.    (I subsequently learnt that the place has a policy of renting out the a building only to one group.)

All the above provide ‘white space’ for the participants to reflect on or have dialogue together.

What if one day I can build one like this in Shanghai or Hong Kong!?

IMG_8699 IMG_8701 IMG_8700

New Experiment


I wrote a paper with an IMD professor on a few companies in China.    Well, it is not exactly related to the themes of this blog.   Well, but it is an easy post to start with….  a lot other coaching / facilitation experience to reflect on in this blog!!    Anyway, hopefully such new attempt will somehow lead me to the coaching / facilitation field in this part of the world…..

Click Leading-Chinese-Companies-final-11-11-2015 to access the paper.

Improv Theatre and Emergence

I normally find it hard to enjoy stage performance / show normally but the dinner performance in the IAF EMENA conference in Stockholm was indeed amazing, even inspiring!   They did improv theatre. I find them to be very creative in how to improv e.g.

  • Randomly started a conversation between 2 actors. Another actor called ‘pause’ anytime and replaced any in-action actor by himself / herself, and carried on the conversation
  • Asked audience to shout out a scene to start with.   Started a random conversation among the players.   Whenever an audience threw a flower onto the stage, the player who just spoke would sing a song using the words he / she just said.   They called it ‘Feel like a song’
  • Two players stood together and moved like one individual. When they spoke during the play, they looked at each other and spoke at the same time. Funny words and meaning came out.

In doing the above, they achieved quite a few things.   They interacted with the audience and kept them engaged.   In fact, they co-created the ‘stories’ with the audience.   And they managed to keep the ‘stories’ entertaining.

Most importantly, apart from being entertained, I saw emergence.   They created the environment where new stories could emerge – stories which even the actors did not know before the show.   I am most amazed with their mindset (just my inference).   One said confidently in the beginning along the line of ‘We are going to perform on stories which we do not know’.

This is exactly the mindset needed to deal with “Complex” problem (under Cynefin Framework) – the cause-and-effect is so unclear that existing practices do not work.   The leaders need to take time to experiment for emergent practices.     To me, the most challenging part is to be mentally prepared e.g. to go against the urge to adopt any ‘best practice’ or ‘technical fix’ which could easily be Work Avoidance.

The way how the improv actors carried themselves provided me a great example and reminer to such way of thinking.   On the other hand, I also learn from them on the technical aspect.   I reflect on how the actors managed to co-create the stories:

Diversity – They designed ways to tap into the different inputs from the floor e.g. timing on when to sing a song.   Other than being engaging, the inputs forced the actors to create something new.   It broke the inertia.

Team – In a way, their task is to convert the crazy inputs into digestable and entertaining performance.   Working in a core team who knows each other well makes it much more possible.   The 4 actors both challenged and supported each other.

Technical – Allowing things to emerge needs solid foundation. The actors could work on new inputs since they have strong performing capability. They sang well. They spoke clear and loud. They made melodies from the piano which their team members can follow. We needed readily available lego pieces in order to emerge.

(Note: The performing team is called Aktör Entertainment.  But somehow, I could not find them on the internet)

A question on question 

New learning experience last month.   First, I acted a coach (for teams and individuals) in a CEIBS executive education program in Shanghai.     I learnt a great deal from the professors, the fellow coaches and the participants.   On the other hand, I did a group coaching session with a small group in Zurich. It is humbling to learn of the challenges faced by the business people in this part of the world.   Lastly, I ran a facilitation skills workshop with a few inhouse facilitators in Hong Kong – a start to their learning journey.

There are a lot of learning from these experiences.   Let me reflect on some.

A question emerged from a coaching conversation with a participant.   She was facing an issue which she already has a lot of data e.g. her own feeling and observation, others’ advices, numbers.   In fact, I sensed that the abundance of data was keeping her from making her decision. She was worried and puzzled. Our conversation led me to ask the following question, which apparently helped her:

‘What is THE one question, if get answered, will relieve you from feeling puzzled?   Take your time and write down your question.   Feel free to write as many as possbile first and then choose / craft into ONE question.’

I do not invent this question totally.   In fact, I was kindly challenged with a similar question when I was puzzled on whether to move to Switzerland.   What I learn now is that such a question is particularly useful when the coachee already has a lot of data.   Moreover, it is important to give time for him or her to really craft the question in writing.   The quiet time spent helps clarify what he or she really wants.

I exchanged the above thought with a friend and received the following challenge – ‘Are we then finding a question to fit the answer we want?’   What he meant is that e.g. if I tend to take up the Switzerland adventure, the above approach is about finding a question which supports the move.   He challenged that such approach is not rational and objective.   Well, my response was – ‘It does not matter. Making a decision, especially the major ones in life, is largely an irrational act after all.   Like getting married or buying an apartment. It is particularly ‘OK’ if one has thought through the pros and cons already.   The key is in fact about helping one to tap into his or her irrational side.’

What do you think?

The Art of Enrolment – Topic

Here is what I see as the third key reason why enrolment is difficult.   It is the nature of some topic.

For some topics, its name is confusing to start with.   ‘Leadership’ (or ‘Leadership Development’) is one of these.    You pick any 2 people in the workplace and ask them what leadership is.   They probably have very different answer.     In addition, there is one understanding of the term ‘Leadership Development’ which particularly confuses the communication i.e.

Leadership Development = Any developmental intervention for those in the leadership position.

This could really mean anything, even how to ensure policy compliance in China.   See my earlier post on ‘Leadership Development’.

With such a diverse understanding on what the topic it is, no wonder we would have ‘wrong’ participants in workshops / interventions.

Jumping ahead a bit into the ‘So What’, perhaps we should do away the term ‘Leadership’ and ‘Leadership Development’ in describing intervention.   Specifically, we should avoid workshop names like ‘The Essence of Leadership’, ‘Advanced Leadership Skills’.   Instead, we can consider to be more specific in naming them and use terms like ‘Transition’, ‘Influencing’, ‘Feedback’, ‘Visioning’.   If we are mindful to keep the name short, we can add a 4-5 words 1 liner to describe.

(Yes, most organisations have course factsheets already in place. But in my experience, people tend to judge by names rather than the content of the factsheets)


The Art of Enrolment

‘Magic happens before and after’ – What a great quote I learnt from the others.   The same applies to the business of developmental work. For example, whether a learning workshop succeeds or not is at least 50% ‘determined already’ before it really starts.   And one of the key pre-workshop work is to get the right participants into the workshop.

I was once in a workshop in Hong Kong with quite a few challenging participants.   They were either:

  • Not knowing why they were put into this particular program (one asked me whether he has done something wrong and thus got sent to this program!!)
  • Not having time for the workshop.   Some were actively working on deals
  • Not seeing the need to develop their leadership at all
  • Not even supported by their boss to spend time in the program

The workshop turned out to be very challenging as we had quite a few of the above and their dysfunctional behaviours influenced others a lot e.g. late-coming, working on mobile devices during sessions.   Having said, there were often 1 or 2 of these ‘prisoners’, ‘tourists’ or even ‘terrorists’ in the workshops I experienced.

Well, that is why I always prefer to work on Just-in-Time learning with intact teams.   See previous posts like this.   Since the intervention itself is real work, the participants will naturally have the will and time for it.   Unfortunately, we got to work on Just-in-Case learning as well and the risk of having ‘wrong’ participants is there.

Let me first reflect on why ‘wrong’ participants will end up in a learning program.   Organisationally, I think the root causes are size, time and topic nature.   First, when there are too many people in an organisation, there will be very different views on what a talent should develop on.     The talent development team in the headquarter believes an individual (let’s say John) should develop on networking skills but John and his boss see hard skills like credit analysis to be more important.   The situation becomes more complex when there are more parties in the picture e.g. local HR, business HR, local talent development, business head.

Ideally, such difference in view can be reconciled if there is time.   Specifically, John comes up his own individual development plan.   He discusses and agrees with his boss.   They then further discuss and agree with their HR partner.   And that HR partner ideally should have liaised with the other various HR specialists and business heads, and thus understands perfectly well the top down agenda on talent development i.e. what competency is needed for the organisation or a particular business.   John can then adjust his individual development plan which by then takes care of his own aspiration, the immediate business and the overall organisational need.   Yet, how often does an organizations have time for such alignment work?    Especially for the listed ones which need to respond to short-term-ism!

Let me elaborate on the third factor – topic nature – in the next post.

Further thought on Co-designing with client

 I wrote about the importance in designing with a representative from the sponsor (here), yet maintaining adequate direct contact with the sponsor (here).   My thought on co-designing is sharpened by my recent experience in running a team development workshop in Shenyang China. The representative is preferably one of the participants.   Not (just) the sponsor’s business planning manager or executive assistant or HR / Training Department coordinator, but someone on the receiving end of the intervention.   First, the latter is equally (if not more informed) of what design would be more appropriate.   Second, working with a participant will simply put a better linkage between design thought and evaluation.     Lastly, if there is learning element in the workshop, the co-designer can start his / her learning earlier during the design process.

Learning Sustainability

Coincidentally I entered into the discussion in separate occasions with others on how to sustain the impact of learning interventions.   Whilst achieving 100% learning transfer all the time is not possible, I think the question is more about ‘How to sustain learning impact to a larger extent?’   Among all the ideas we discussed, it seems to me the ARL (Action Reflection Learning) practice is still the key.   (Yet, it is not without implementation challenges)

I may have written some of the following points before.   Allow me to refresh my thought (to myself) by possibly repeating some.

I think ARL, or the practice of ‘Learning whilst Earning’ is the future.  I once was asked a question ‘What do you think the future of leadership development will be?’   Ideas came to my mind and I said:

“I think we will not have any traditional openly-nominated classroom-based workshop.   We will not have a fixed schedule and thick binders for the learners.   We will not do Just-in-Case learning anymore.   In the future, we will do Just-in-Time learning.   Our facilitators will go into business meetings, perhaps those annual strategy planning meetings. We facilitate their real business discussion.   More than that, we will pause the leaders to reflect on their behaviors in the meetings and if necessary we will introduce some concepts or tools for them to use on spot.”

There are a few reasons why this is probably the future:

Learners’ Commitment – There are lot of problems in the Just-in-Case setting.   I become more and more skeptical of ‘prisoner’ type of learners. They are in the learning event because they are asked to.   Everybody suffers – themselves, the fellow learners and the facilitator.   Time is wasted.   However, if the event is a real business meeting, everyone will be much more engaged.   Things are relevant and real.   And if we can introduce tools and concepts to be immediately used in the on-going situations, learning retention is high by definition.

Sponsors’ Commitment – No matter how well one learns in a workshop, learning retention will drop a great deal if he or she is not supported to apply the learning back in the workplace.   And the line managers are the most important factor determining whether there is enough support.   A typical example – one learn the GROW model to coach.   He applies it back to the workplace but is challenged by his line managers on why he asked so many questions instead of just telling.   And the line managers in fact always just tell.   This will kill his learning on coaching skills right away.

On the other hand, if we install learning in a real business setting, the sponsors are likely involved and in fact become learners as well.

Effectiveness Measurement – Learning professionals have been struggling how to measure effectiveness on leadership development initiative.   There is no perfect solution yet.   However, in the Just-in-Case setting, the intervention effort can possibly result in better business result e.g. cost saving / attrition rate, on top of developing leaders.

Cost Pressure – Given the more and more difficult operating environment, learning resources will likely be cut ……. unless we can prove the effectiveness.   When the next financial crisis comes, it is not unlikely that corporations will further either cut down the stand-alone learning department or outsources majority of the work.   It will however be a different proposition if the so-called learning department can facilitate both earning and learning.   I wrote more about this idea in my previous blog post Forget about ‘Training’

Despite the above, the move from traditional practice to ‘Connecting Earning with Learning’ is still a big paradigm shift for most organizations.    Essentially, it is ‘safe’ to run traditional classes.   And there are often stakeholders with vested interest to the traditional practice.

To me, the key outstanding questions are:

  • How to balance the need for consistency in learning across the organization in adopting Just-in-Time learning approach?
  • Should we adopt a higher balance of conformity for more junior learners i.e. less Just-in-Time?   And if so, how much and where to draw the line?
  • What kinds of quality are needed for the facilitators or Team Coaches to be able to conduct Just-in-Time learning?
  • How to build the initial success in order to influence other stakeholders?