AN INQUIRY INTO GROUP REFLECTION
Ann R. Thomas and Robert R. Lee
Learning how to learn as a group takes on increasing importance with
the expanding prominence of team-structured activity in organizations.
Reflective processes offer a means to accomplish this. Building on Donald
Schon's significant explorations of reflection-in-action among managers
and other professional, we have been experimenting with ways to encourage
group reflection and reflection-in-action in business settings. Reflective
conversation among team members provides opportunities to explore multiple
perspectives and generates new insights that help the team address the
increasing uncertainty and complexity associated with nearly every aspect
of work. Reflective conversation, too, can be a way for individuals to
share their reflections-in-action, helping to gain deeper understanding
of their own and each others' thinking processes.
Such conversations do not readily occur in today's fast-paced, action-oriented,
organizational environments, nor did they 15 years ago, when, referring
to the typical business setting, Schon noted:
"Managers seldom reflect on their reflection-in-action. Hence, this
critically important dimension remains private and inaccessible to others."1
Schon explained this as a consequence of the unique environment of managers
with regard to the practice of reflection-in-action. He noted that managers
attend to the circumstances and issues of their organization and at the
same time they work within its culture. Thus, more so than other professionals,
managers may be subject to system-wide structures and behavioral norms
that encourage or more likely inhibit, inquiry of self and others. He
pointed out too, that as they reflect-in-action, managers significantly,
though unknowingly, influence the content of the organizational knowledge
base over time. These factors may explain why organizational learning
and the art of management, in general, continue to be mysterious processes,
largely unknown and untaught.
FROM REFLECTION TO CONVERSATION
We seek to help managers become aware of their abilities to reflect-in-action
so that they can share their processes with others to further build learning
capacities within their organizations. Recently we have been experimenting
with a process that builds on such individual reflections to stimulate
reflective conversations at the team level.
In individual interviews, we encourage managers to reflect on previous
actions, probing especially for awareness of their thinking processes
at critical junctures. We find that many managers readily move into deep
reflection on their reflection-in-action. We provide time, gentle probing,
and deep listening; managers nearly always appreciate the learning that
results. Afterwards we debrief the interview process, to further their
awareness of reflection-in-action.
To extend this learning and introduce reflection at the group level,
we conduct reflective interviews with each member of a management team,
focusing on a common set of events or broad topic. We then create a composite
"learning story" made up of the quotes from the individual interviews.2,3
The learning story, structured by themes, provides a focus for reflection,
when the contributors are brought together for a reflective conversation.
We hypothesize that the composite learning story further raises awareness
of reflection-in-action and makes explicit the possibility of overarching
theories against which the group can begin to reflect-in-action together,
and from which new insight and learning can emerge.
OBSERVATIONS AND INQUIRY
Group conversations seem to need facilitation and guidelines to keep
the group focused on inquiry. Managers, particularly, are pushed by time,
inclination and training into problem solving and decision making modes
prematurely. It may be that the skill to hold open the inquiry to allow
re-framing of the problem is an issue of personal mastery in having tolerance
for uncertainty and ambiguity.
Our first experiences using this process to facilitate reflective conversation
in a business setting are encouraging. The groups find the conversation
enlightening and valuable, but do not carry the process forward on their
own. Outside facilitation seems to be necessary to hold the group in a
We look forward to more opportunities for exploring the practice of group
reflection in action and at the same time, we are anxious to understand
more about the dynamics of both individual and collective reflection.
Our continued inquiry includes:
- How does reflection-in-action differ between the group and individual
- Does group reflection-in-action result in better understanding of
complex issues? How does this happen?
- What are the pitfalls and risks of group reflection in an organization?
- Why do managers have difficulty creating the conditions for their
- How can a group learning process such as this be sustained?
1. Donald Schon, "The Reflective Practitioner", HarperCollins
Publishers, 1983, p. 243.
2. Art Kleiner and George Roth, "How to Make Experience Your Company
Best Teacher", Harvard Business Review, September-October, 1997,
3. R. R. Lee and A. R. Thomas, "Reflection from the Front Line:
A Composite Story of Organizational Transformation in Progress",
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