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Getting the Mix Spot On: Learning by Doing and Learning by Reflecting

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I've spent the past few weekends renovating the Victorian brickwork on our house. The bricks are a lovely warm shade of orange, but over the years many have suffered, leaving their faces damaged and ill equipped to withstand our damp weather. The process entails carefully prising each compromised brick from the wall and reversing it to expose a pristine surface hidden away for over 120 years. Repositioning them without besmirching their beauty with mortar is a delicate and time-consuming process. Yet my immersion in the activity means that time just slips away. That's not to say the project is without its frustrations. My know-how is largely derived from a mix of YouTube and learning-by-doing, and there are frequent challenges.

In his wonderful book The Craftsman [2008] Richard Sennett explores the way technique develops in response to tools which resist us, tools that we find challenging to use because it is hard for us to know how to use them. I get exactly where he is coming from having forced myself to learn how to manipulate a laden trowel through different planes to successfully spread a perfectly mixed mortar in tight corners. It's easy on this journey to blame the tool and resort to colourful language, but more productive to bear in mind Sennett's counsel that

"the patience of a craftsman can .. be defined as: the temporary suspension of the desire for closure."

This is close to the intentional awareness of mindfulness in which preoccupation with task completion gives way to absorption in the task itself. It's important to distinguish this state from what Csikszentmihalyi defines as "flow" where we lose or forget ourselves in the task, because while it's true that time and other demands evaporate, here they are supplanted by heightened self-consciousness. It is this quality that has enabled me to consistently get my mortar mixes spot on and to track the precise nature of my trowel grip and the circular movements of my wrist through repeated applications, and to finally arrive at a reasonable level of skill. What this amounts to is on-going in-action reflection, a form of deliberate, critical mindfulness.

The fact is, however, opportunities to achieve and inhabit this state of heightened self-consciousness are becoming rarer in our deadline driven, multi-tasking, outcome prescribed professional lives. That's a loss all round, because as Sennett observes,

"it is by arousing self-consciousness that the worker is driven to do better."

But if circumstances for immersive in-performance learning seem increasingly hard to come by, there is still scope for high impact, performance boosting learning through post-performance reflection. According to a Harvard Business School working paper published last month, the process of after-action reflection makes a major contribution to self-efficacy, one's self-belief in the ability to accomplish a goal. And self-efficacy has a direct and positive impact on performance. What's rather astonishing, however, is that almost 40 years after Kolb and Fry shared their experiential learning cycle, the paper's authors - Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano and Bradley Staats - present as a novelty the notion that,

"learning from direct experience can be more effective if coupled with reflection--that is, the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience."

Moreover, they find that:

"although some organizations are increasingly relying on some group reflection (e.g., 'after-action reports'), there has been almost no effort to encourage individuals to reflect, and people often fail to engage in self-reflection themselves."

If all this is true then two precious chances to improve performance are being squandered:

  1. In-action learning designed to arouse self-consciousness
  2. After-action reflection designed to enhance self-efficacy

Intriguingly Stafano et al also report that the impact of after-action reflection on self-efficacy is as great when carried out independently as when conducted in conjunction with another, for example a colleague or a coach. This may be the case, but as they acknowledge, busy professionals are not good at setting aside time and space for reflection. The introduction of discipline and structure is one of the significant benefits of conventional professional coaching. Imagine, then, how much more effective the developmental process becomes if the coach steps beyond that conventional role to support not only the learner's after-action reflection but also the development of her in-action self-consciousness. In this model the coach is also present during specified performance activities and has two responsibilities:

  1. To observe performance and make notes for an after-action coaching conversation designed to develop self-efficacy
  2. To use specialised techniques to focus the learner on her performance-awareness and develop capacity for habitual self-consciousness

The second responsibility is a finely balanced undertaking for the coach: too much intervention and any hope that the learner will achieve absorption in the task will be lost; too little and the learner may simply lose herself in the task and forget to be mindful. Get it right, though, and mixed with effective after-action reflection, you'll have a potent approach to building enhanced professional performance.

Right, I'm back off to my wall. Now, where did I leave that bloody trowel?