One of the most important yet least practiced phases of any project is reflecting on the experience and what it can teach. Especially in today’s hectic business climate, by the time one project has come to an end, we are already engaged in the next. However, taking the time to reflect on lessons learned can have a significant impact on future performance, both for you and your organization.
I once knew a leader who, whenever anyone returned from a development opportunity, would take them for a walk and ask, “What did you learn?” Answering this question required employees to reflect on their learning and put it into a coherent context, cementing the experience. This simple practice cost the company nothing, but they estimated that it increased the retention rate for development opportunities by 3–5 times.
There is a biological basis for this phenomenon. Research in neuroscience has shown that the amount of attention paid to a new insight determines how well it is retained. Each time our focus is drawn to a specific idea, we literally strengthen a circuit in our brain. With enough attention, these circuits become permanent, intrinsic parts of our thinking. Similarly, processes become entrenched in organizations through repeated use. As such, reflecting on experience can be a useful mechanism for stimulating a company’s growth, offering an opportunity to reinforce or change business practices.
To ensure that reflection becomes part of your company’s culture, plan specific review meetings into your projects and team meetings, then follow-through and make them a priority. In many instances, it will be helpful for people to reflect on both organization/team performance and on their individual performance.
On an individual level, ask:
- What did I learn from this experience?
- Am I pleased with my performance? Why or why not?
- What assumptions did I make at the start of the process? Were those assumptions accurate? Were they helpful?
- How will I operate differently in the future?
For the organization/team:
- Did our performance meet expectations? Why or why not?
- Where did we experience bottlenecks? Delays? Other issues? How can these be avoided in the future?
- What worked well? How can those practices be shared in the organization?
- Are there individuals who deserve special recognition for their role in the initiative?
- How did the organization/team experience the initiative? Does that match our intentions?
- If we had it to do over again, is there anything we would do differently?
- What accomplishment are we most proud of?
When there is a clear end point or transition—at the end of a year, quarter, or project—it is natural for people to reflect on their experiences and take stock of their progress. Take advantage of this impulse and schedule some structured time for yourself or your team at these times. Write down your thoughts to increase your focus and strengthen the impact. While it may feel awkward at first, reflection is what allows you to operate intentionally, consciously choosing your actions and maximizing your impact on the organization.