The Art of Reflection

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Most of us see reflection as a personal pursuit, a solitary practice—and it is. But it’s also a valuable tool for businesses and business leaders and, as such, a critical component of effective business education. We asked John Everett, an affiliate assistant professor at the Sellinger School, who teaches the Business Strategy course, how reflection—a cornerstone of Jesuit philosophy—is used in business and business education. Drawing on his teaching experience as well as 30 years in the telecommunications industry, Everett shared his thoughts with us.  

Why is reflection important in business?

To understand why reflection is a key business tool, you have to realize what reflection is in the first place. In a basic way, it’s the translation of ideas and experiences into reality, reality being defined as what the idea or experience means to you personally, your reality. It is thinking about the impact of the idea or experience upon you, then deciding what you might do about it. In other words, reflection, as a tool, also has decision and action components to it.

Given that definition, reflection is important to business in several ways.

First, success, however it is defined, often depends upon the ability of leaders to translate ideas and experiences into reality, then act on that reality. Second, at all levels of business, the need to know is imperative. Reflective knowing or learning means understanding in a deeper way—not just what happened, but how an experience or idea might impact you or what you are trying to do. Third, in a world that bombards us with information, reflection is an effective way first to sort through what is important to you, then to understand the information in a way that might lead to action. And finally, there are also social benefits to reflection. Since we share many thoughts and feelings with others, reflection tends to help us know ourselves better and, as a result, we are able to understand others a little better.

How can one incorporate reflection in our daily professional life?

The most straightforward way is to be sure that you spend some quiet time each day reflecting upon your experiences, your conversations, your readings, new ideas, or problems that you need to address. 

Do it in a structured way:

  • Articulate the experience so that you capture it;
  • Analyze why something happened, why what happened was important, or why you felt the way you did about it;
  • Make connections with other experiences and learn from those previous experiences; and,
  • Decide whether what you learned has implications for the present or future and whether there is something you should be doing about it now.

How can reflection help you to tailor your business strategy?

Strategic planners are heavily dependent upon a thorough understanding of the external and internal factors that might influence planning. Once critical factors are understood, making connections among those factors is essential to the creation of plans that are feasible, valuable, and forward thinking. Applying the reflection model outlined earlier will help make the connections and possibly suggest direction.

As a side note, strategy formulation should be data-driven. Having said that, planners should never simply allow planning models to fully dictate strategy. Planners must bring themselves into strategic decisions. As a result, strategy making should be both art and science.   

What advice would you give businesses or professionals to help incorporate reflection at their companies?

Reflection is a solitary activity. It is really self-reflection that we’re talking about. So, it requires individuals, not organizations, to apply reflection. Just the same, the Reflective Learning model can be easily taught and skill with it can be developed through use. Its availability and value can be communicated in organizations as any business tool might be. It seems to make sense, however, that incorporation is best accomplished through demonstration and use by leaders.

How do you incorporate reflection in your classes?

In all of my classes, I do a quick reminder of the concept of reflection and the steps outlined earlier. I reinforce the idea during the semester as a means of "locking in" concepts and determining how the concept might be applied the next day on the job. I also require in many of my classes a final reflection paper using the format.

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