Sometime back, one of our teams had embarked on an important project. After the initial enthusiasm, they ran into significant hurdles. Despite adding more reviews, things began slipping further. Not knowing what to do, the manager called the team for a feedback session and asked for their help.
As the team opened up, they began discussing their concerns and what each of them could do differently to get things back on track. The team recognised that a lot of the challenges were due to lack of trust and proper communication. They agreed on several actions. Over the next few months, the team decided to incorporate reflection sessions in their ways of working – to pause, introspect, assess and course-correct.
Many of us know the power of looking in the mirror and reflecting on our behaviours to improve ourselves individually. A study by the Harvard Business School found that employees who took 15 minutes to reflect at the end of their day performed 23% better after just 10 days.
Applying some of the principles of individual reflection in a team setting can be very powerful. While most organisations have lots of meetings and detailed reviews, there is very little focus on honest and open introspection. Occasionally, after a product launch, some teams do a post-mortem analysis. But generally, most of these exercises are done more like a review.
Intentionally reflecting together allows your team to identify what’s going right, pinpoint key obstacles, uncover gaps in your process, and reveal insights and solutions.
It creates a space to collectively celebrate achievements and exchange constructive feedback. Done in the right manner, team reflections can help increase trust and transparency and make the relationships among team members stronger.
So, this week, my message focuses on the power of team reflections. What are some steps managers can take to establish and lead such sessions?
Why don’t we reflect?
Leaders and managers are frequently advised to make time for reflection, alone as well as with our teams. So why don’t we get around to it more often? The fact is that in the midst of hectic days, reflecting can feel a waste of time or an unnecessary luxury. Action-oriented managers, in particular, dislike slowing down and “doing nothing”.
This is why it’s important for us to re-orient our thinking. Reflection shouldn’t be seen as a superfluous activity that exists outside the workflow; rather, it should be a part and parcel of it. As a Forbes article notes:
The commonly held belief is that learning is binary: “Either I’m working or I’m learning.” But the truth is, learning and working both fit inside the same circle.
Reflective practice can also bring up feelings of messiness, confusion, and defensiveness — all of which can be quite uncomfortable to deal with. The top barrier to reflection, however, is not knowing quite what to do! It’s all very well to say, “let’s reflect”, but what exactly does the process involve?
So, for managers who want to start leading reflective sessions for their teams, here is a step-by-step guide:
The word “reflection”can conjure up visions of everyone sitting in total silence, deep in thought. But a team reflection is much more active than that! Sure, you will carve out some quiet time for contemplation, but the session should involve plenty of interaction and discussion.
The first step is to find a reflective structure that works for you and your team. Here are a few templates to consider — try them out in different sessions or combine them into your own hybrid format.
- Stop/Start/Keep. Each team member shares three things they want to stop doing, three things they want to start doing, and three things they want to keep doing. Each item is discussed collectively, with participants sharing their insights, feedback, and suggestions.
- Plus/Delta. This Lean tool for reflection invites team members to create two lists. The Plus list includes successful behaviours, practices, and experiences to continue or build upon. The Delta list includes opportunities for improvement. Once both lists are in place, you can move on to specific reflective questions for each item.
- Question-Based. A list of questions guides the discussion. Ask team members to reflect on each question on their own, then share their perspectives with the group. This is the most flexible format for reflections, allowing for free-flowing informal conversations.
To be effective, team reflections need to be held with some frequency. Managers can set a fixed time for their monthly/bi-monthly session and add it to the team calendar on a recurring basis. This instantly sends a signal that reflection is serious business.
4. Airplane mode.
Disconnecting from technology allows the brain to slow down. Whether the session is in person or remote, encourage team members to switch their phones to airplane mode for the duration.
To foster deeper reflection, go back to the basics — pen and paper, whiteboard, and marker, etc. The minute-taker can use their device to take notes if they prefer — this role can be assigned on a rotating basis.
A manager’s main role is to facilitate the session by providing structure and creating a safe space. Allow your team to own the process and the conversation.
To prompt learning-oriented dialogue, you need to ask clear questions. Avoid sending the questions in advance; instead, introduce them within the session and allow for solo thinking time before starting the discussion.
Here are some starter questions to consider:
- What went well in the last month/two months/project?
- Who contributed to it? What did they do right?
- How can we replicate this success?
- What went not-so-well in the last month/two months/project?
- Did the outcome match our expectations?
- What were we aiming to do? What actually happened? What led to this difference?
- What can we do differently next time?
Here are some questions around team dynamics:
- What is the essential tone/character of our team?
- What are our common priorities? Are we focusing on the right things?
- How do we make decisions?
- Do we listen to each other? Is everyone’s voice being heard?
- Are we able to say what we think?
- In what ways can I add value to this team?
- What does the ideal team look like?
After a few sessions have gone by, you can ask the following questions:
- What are 2-3 most useful learnings we have got so far?
- Have we been able to use these learnings to improve outcomes?
- How can we improve accountability?
- What are some common themes that have been coming up in our discussions? What might these be telling us?
- What remains unsaid? What are we not learning?
Reflections can also be structured by theme, such as:
- Internal communication
- Decision-making process
- Interactions with other departments
- Client relationships
- A specific project
Along with recognising achievements, a reflection session also uncovers what’s lacking in the team. As sore points are touched, some team members might react by becoming defensive, angry, or hurt. Managers must be prepared to defuse the situation and bring the session back to its core purpose — learning.
Psychological safety goes a long way towards nipping conflict in the bud, so make it abundantly clear that these sessions are about improvement, not about blame or finger-pointing.
Learnings can be incorporated into the team’s work process through action points. Remember, a vibrant reflective session might yield a very long list of suggestions, but it won’t be feasible to implement them all. Work together to focus on a few concrete changes at a time.
Ask your team to devise a system to stay accountable to each other — this helps to ensure that learnings are actually being embedded into the workflow. You could follow up after a few weeks, or at your next reflective session.
During workdays governed by packed schedules and urgent tasks, the thought of gathering the entire team together for reflection can feel like more trouble than it’s worth. Look at it this way: these sessions offer practical, tangible ways to improve the way you work as a group and enhance business outcomes — a top priority for any manager. So, are you ready to schedule your first team reflection?