My son went to Grade 1 this year. Everything is new for him – a new school kit, new social life, new sports, new syllabus. He loves it, it’s a new challenge for him, and he is super excited! A new year often holds the hope of new things, even if it’s not your first day in Grade 1. We can utilise the natural rhythm of the year to reflect on the year past and reset for the year to come.

We encourage teams to reflect often, not just annually. Reflection should be built into the regular execution rhythm, part of the healthy business habits you apply in your organisation. It’s a simple process with a significant return on effort. There is no right or wrong way, and indeed many different ways to approach reflecting. However, we usually ask four questions during reflection sessions we facilitate, which we’ll unpack here.

Why reflection is crucial

To learn

We can’t accentuate the importance of reflection in the teams we work with enough. One of our favourite quotes is from John Dewey, an educational reformer from the early 1900s.

We don’t learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience.

John Dewey

Here’s another quote, more recent, from Annie Duke, the author of Thinking in Bets:

We take credit for the good stuff and blame the bad stuff on luck. The result is that we don’t learn from our experience.

Annie Duke

How would we know how much of our successes are due to our rigid, diligent work and proper planning, versus simply luck, if we don’t reflect to learn from our experience?

To absorb

Learning is one thing; to really absorb learning is another. We’ve written on the neuroscience of OKRs before, and there’s some neuroscience behind reflection as well.

There are parts of our brain (the sympathetic nervous system) that are activated through an adrenal ‘fight or flight’ type response – your heart rate increases; your palms get sweaty, you are ready for action. Then there are other parts (the parasympathetic nervous system) that are activated through ‘rest and digest’ – it’s active when you deliberately slow down.

Through activating more areas of the brain, we absorb more. We have to build resting, and in turn reflecting, as a competency. Running on adrenaline is not an option.

The four questions we use for reflection

Before we get into the questions, there are two areas that we think about when reflecting – content and process. The content relates to the score – how well did you perform on your OKRs or goals in the last cycle? The process relates to the operating model – how well are we operating and functioning together as a team? So these questions are specifically related to the process and not the content – it’s easy to give ourselves a score, it’s not that easy to think about continuous ways to improve our process.

What do we celebrate as successes?

Celebrations cause a release of dopamine. It builds our confidence and builds a team as we celebrate together. You can celebrate a good score (the content we refer to above), but you can also celebrate irrespective of the score. In some cycles (annually or quarterly), our performance could look horrible if we just look at the score, but it may be due to capturing other opportunities that aren’t reflected in the score. Subjectively, how do you feel about the past cycle? Did we work together effectively? Did we make progress? Did we build something significant?

What do we accept as blunders?

Strategic goals need to be a place where people can take risks and operate freely. A strategy is often a pursuit into the unknown – it’s creating something that we haven’t seen before. To create this environment, we can’t be hauling people over the coals for mistakes. So avoid the language of “mistakes” or “failures” – change it to “blunders” and “learnings”.

(If you like this thinking, have a look at anything from Ben Zander on the Art of Possibility – how fascinating!)

What are the options to improve?

Now that we understand what went well and what didn’t go so well, list all of the options to improve. This is an open brainstorm with no right or wrong – they are just options. We often say the OKR methodology is adaptable, which means it must be adapted. Change anything you want, as long as it contributes to the team working together and executing more effectively.

What do we choose to change?

You can’t change everything – choose three things to change. Firstly, if you change everything simultaneously, you’d never know what works and what doesn’t. Secondly, loading a plethora of changes on a team at one time will overwhelm them. Prioritisation is the most critical role of a leader and seems to be applicable everywhere! If you can commit to being only 1% better on every iteration, that will compound over time to something significant.

Reflecting is one of those things that’s difficult but not complex. It’s difficult because we forget about it. Quarters roll by too quickly. We struggle to sit still, relax, and let our parasympathetic nervous system do the work. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take up much time, and the compounding return on effort over time will be significant.

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