Reflective practice as a useful everyday tool

Image credit: Skip

I recently attended the CILIP New Professionals’ Day. It was my second time presenting at the event and this year I got to stay for the whole day, to enjoy the other presentations and chat to people.

At lunchtime I got chatting with Ross, who had been to my talk the previous year, about professional confidence and professional development. Our conversation turned to Chartership and reflective writing. Ross described how – as a naturally reflective person – the process of reflective writing for Chartership can seem a bit mechanical and arduous. He also described how many of us can feel uncomfortable with talking and writing about ourselves, it can feel a bit self-indulgent or navel-gazing. I understand all of these sentiments is because I have had exactly the same thoughts and have heard them from others. We discussed how I had found reflective practice practically useful in improving my practice.

I developed my reflective practice skills whilst doing my Chartership, and have refined them over the years through application at work and in supporting Chartership candidates as a Candidate Support Officer and now a mentor. I have seen how reflective practice can be really useful in everyday work.

Top tips for reflection

The main principles I use when reflecting on anything are:

  • Don’t over-reflect – sometimes at the end of a project, an exchange with a user/customer/client, etc, all that is needed is for you to take ten minutes to have a think about what went well and what could have gone better. To be a reflective practitioner, you do not need to undertaken an extensive reflective exercise. Use your judgment and reflect as much as needed.
  • Don’t just reflect when things go wrong – there is a difference between reflecting and ruminating. It is not self-congratulatory or arrogant to think about what went well and why. Reflecting when things going well enables you to replicate those circumstances in future to maximise the chance of success, just as you reflect on things that don’t go well to stop them happening again.
  • Protect reflection – incorporate reflection into your practice. Whether that be wash-up meetings at the end of projects, keeping a reflective diary or just having a chat with a colleague while the kettle boils. Find and make the time for reflection.
  • Focus on process – if you are uncomfortable with looking at your own performance, focusing on the process of what you are reflecting on can help you to get some distance and enable you to reflect. This can also help with this…
  • No blame – blaming people doesn’t help. It doesn’t change what has happened, makes people afraid to admit mistakes and is cruel yet ineffective at achieving change. This does not mean that you have to be obscure by not naming people who are responsible for things not going well, but you can do this in a way that does not induce guilt but helps them to reflect on what happened and why. On the flip side, if someone has done a good job, champion them!

How reflection can help

I previously worked on a very challenging project, where quite a few things went wrong. It was not a pleasant feeling. I am used to having generally happy clients.

So what did I do about it?

At my workplace we always have wash-up meetings at the end of projects as part of our project management process. The project team discuss what went well and what could have gone better. Then we share three key learning points with the whole team. In this case it was a large project, where a lot of small things had combined and accumulated to lead to things going wrong. So I knew it was going to be challenging to unpick the things that we all could have done differently.

I wrote down rough reflections immediately so that I wouldn’t forget things, then I went back to this list a few times to add to it and refine it. Some things that I wrote down immediately afterwards when I was still emotional – feeling angry and frustrated – I then deleted after I had cooled off. With time and perspective I realised that those things weren’t important.

I prioritised my reflections as I reworked them, so I thought about which of my points were most important and would have the biggest impact.

I celebrated what went well, as well as what hadn’t. This was an important emotional step for me, as it enabled me to realise that the project hadn’t been an unmitigated disaster and helped to rebuild my professional confidence.

So did it help?

In a word: yes. The lessons that I learned from reflecting on that project I immediately implemented in a subsequent project which went really well. Obviously there were lots of other circumstances that contributed to that project going better, but the changes I made in my practice definitely helped. For example in the earlier project we had only scheduled a draft, feedback, then final draft. For many projects that may be sufficient, but not when working with complex health topics that are open to interpretation and different perspectives. Because that earlier project dealt with an amorphous topic, our understanding of the project and that of our client had diverged as we got further into the project. We had regular catch up calls, but the draft came as a shock to them. So when I was working on the subsequent project (again a complex topic) we sent the client regular interim deliverables, that were sections of the report etc. This meant the client to know exactly where we were going with the project, the style we were using and our interpretation of the topic. As a result, we made small adjustments along the way rather than having to do a total rewrite as we had to on the previous project.

That’s just one example of how the learning from reflective practice can help you to improve your practice. If you have any experiences that you’d like to share or top tips, I’d love to hear about them in the comments or on Twitter (@ellyob).

By the way, the project that went badly ended up going well. We did a mini reflection when things went wrong, identified what had happened, came up with a plan for how to turn it around and implemented those lessons learned within that project. So reflection doesn’t always have to be after the fact!

Posted in CPD

2 thoughts on “Reflective practice as a useful everyday tool

  1. I’ve found that reflecting has become unconsciously embedded in my working practices, simply because of where I sit! I work at a set of desks with 2 other librarians and often when one of us returns from teaching we’ll ask how it went. Sometimes there’s not a lot to talk about, but sometimes we help each other improve the tasks we set the students, the information we give them, or the activities we do. One thing I think it’s important to emphasise is that reflection doesn’t have to be formal and written, it can take be an informal chat with colleagues that leads to some improvement or further reflection on your work.

  2. I agree completely! Open plan offices are often maligned, but I think shows that they can be useful to facilitate these mini reflections. A 5 minute reflective chat and think as you walk to your next meeting or training session etc, can be really valuable and is definitely better than nothing!

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