Dialogue and learning by doing are quite common themes when employing innovation related actions in organizations. This article shortly presents and discusses how reflection of what has been learned could be integrated into these actions. Questions such as why, how, what and when to reflect, organization of reflection dialogues, and role of a coach in guiding reflection dialogues are discussed.

Author: Pasi Juvonen

1. Introduction

Due to Covid-19 pandemic, we in LAB University of applied sciences are in a new situation like every other higher educational institute (HEI) in the world. In the LAB University of Applied Sciences, this situation forced us to rapidly change our conventions and routines. Campuses were closed for few months, we still work mostly remotely at home or at cottage, and many of us were parallel acting in many roles for young children who are studying at home for weeks. Overall, we were partly able to adapt because we had to.

In HEI’s we work in knowledge-intensive environment where we continuously utilize and apply existing knowledge, and create new context-specific knowledge through our experiences. This abnormal situation has also either forced or given us an opportunity to observe and reflect our previous working practices. Many have already noticed that something essential has been missing compared to situation before Covid-19. There has probably also been observations of practices or routines that we seem not to miss very much. These all together offer us a huge opportunity to learn how to build a new normal for us after these exceptional times.

The motivation for this article is to discuss the role of reflection in innovation-oriented actions. The article is organized as follows: first, background for reflection is presented. Secondly, questions about why, how, what to reflect are discussed and some observation on how and when to organize reflection dialogues are made. In the end, a short summary about the subject is made.

2. What is Reflection?

This chapter presents and clarifies the concept of reflection and shows why the reflection is an essential part of the learning process of all innovation related actions. Required preconditions for reflection are also presented.

2.1 Experiential learning framework

Based on Johnson and Johnson (2003) people should:

  1. act based on the current working theory
  2. analyze the consequences of the actions and gather feedback
  3. reflect how efficiently the actions led to admired consequences and shape the working theory again (learning)
  4. act again based on the refined working theory; then jump to phase two.

It is natural for individuals to build mental models of how the world works. As long as our experiences support these mental models they remain unchanged and no real learning will happen (Gray 2007; Larrivee 2008; Forrester 2011; Johns 2013; Wang and Chugh 2014). With reflection it is possible to surface, discuss, question and change these mental models. The results of reflection serve as a basis for future actions. By utilizing experimental learning framework activities are based more on empirical experiences than without it.

The importance of reflection has been generally recognized for over 30 years. Donald A. Schön’s work (based on John Dewey) has laid a cornerstone to the importance of reflection in learning. The purpose of reflection is to pay attention to what is happening and to revise the context and process of learning with questions such as “What was done?” “How it was done?” ”What was learnt by doing it?” (Schön 1983, 1987; Clutterbuck 2007). On the other hand, reflection can also be related to the development target or the methods used for the development. On an individual level, the reflection of our actions is continuous. Based on Schön (2009) when an individual faces a new situation, they question their previous understanding on the phenomenon and construct a new situation-specific theory for the task at hand.

Based on John Dewey’s research Rogers (2002, 845) has listed four criteria defining reflection:

  1. Reflection is a meaning-making process by which a learner moves from one experience to another and at the same time deepens their understanding of the connections between the experiences. Reflection is the thread that enables continuity of learning, and makes it possible for an individual and a community to develop.
  2. Reflection is a systematic and disciplined way of thinking and its roots are in the organized way of making questions
  3. Reflection has to take place within a community, in interaction with other individuals
  4. Reflection requires an attitude that appreciates personal and cognitive growth in self and in other individuals.

Often reflection is done immediately after action. Typical examples of this kind of reflection are debriefs, which are used in military. In debriefs the actions are reviewed step by step. Every decision made during the action phase, thoughts behind them and consequences of the decisions are discussed and analyzed. The goal is to learn and be able to do better next time. Reflection has a significant effect on the performance of teams. As an important byproduct, open reflection builds trust between participants. In an ideal situation, the individuals learn to analyze their own way to reflect actions. This is called reflexivity (Day et al. 2003).

Boud et al. (1985) define reflection as a process of active observation and inquiry, which in many times leads to surprising results. It is important to build reflection on the learners’ experiences and offer the learners possibilities to actively reflect what they have learned. Furthermore, Boyd et al. emphasize three issues concerning reflection: 1) No one is able to learn on behalf of another and only an individual can reflect their own experience 2) Reflection has to be organized and goal-oriented and 3) Reflection is a complex process mixing cognition and feelings. Cognition and feelings are interconnected and negative feelings remarkably inhibit learning (Kujala et al. 2012). Actions and experiences without reflection do not lead to learning (Jarvis 1995).

2.2 Preconditions for successful reflection

Reflection has a crucial role in learning by doing. Without reflection learning by doing is only doing and learning from it is slow. Boud et al. (2006, 23) list inhibitors for productive reflection as follows:

”Productive reflection is not possible when:

– problem definition is one-minded
– problems are owned by only few or only one individual
– decisions about development activities are made outside the people participating into reflection
– one or some participants know the “right” way to proceed
– participants do not really believe in experiential learning or it is not respected
– issues can be done by standard procedures or practices
– information (or knowledge) sharing in group context has fundamental obstacles
– new solution are actively or passively avoided.”

Feldman (2000) emphasizes the significance of high quality feedback systems for organizational operations. The objective is to narrow the chasm between assumptions concerning goals and reality. Feedback systems are often a formal instance of reflection in organization. Employees from several organizations argue that there is no time to sit down and think during weekdays. The significance of reflection is also often underestimated. When time is not used to reflection it may lead to situations where negative feelings such as frustration, confusion and even envy are accumulated. These accumulated feelings then easily come apart in different modes of unproductive behavior. These kinds of situations undermine the atmosphere at work and they could be avoided by developing a more reflective culture where the reflective dialogue would be an organized part of daily or weekly actions (Connelly et al. 2012).

Power and hierarchies can also hinder reflection because individuals do not feel free to speak up what is in their mind (Grill et al. 2011). Directors and managers in the organization have a significant role here. When managers “walk the talk” they will set an example and show others how to follow. This may mean several things, but usually it is wise to set an example in experiencing something new and learning from it. This might lead to open reflection, where people feel psychologically safe, and where listening and reverence are present. This would be a fruitful soil for understanding different opinions (Jacobs and Heracleuos 2005).

Learning is also interpretation of our experiences about the world. We now and then compare our thinking with the starting point and find out “how the journey has changed the traveler”, in other words, what we have learned. The interpretation should be done on an individual level, in groups and between groups (organizational level). Knowledge is always context-specific (Nonaka and Takeuchi 1996; Nonaka and Toyama 2005) and circumstances for creating new knowledge are ideal when there is a group of people with intrinsic motivation for the task present (Hardagon and Bechky 2006). With intrinsic motivation one can continuously create better opportunities to learn innovation skills and increase information of the problem domain to be able to solve the challenges within it. These circumstances and methods put together are called team learning (Edmondson et al. 2001; Michaelsen et al. 2002; Senge 2006). The only team learning method introduced in this article is reflection.

2.3 Where should the emphasis of reflection be?

Aaltonen (2010) discusses the logic based on Newton and how it affects current methods used in problem solving. Aaltonen also discusses the concept of being a specialist and fact-based decision making. Aaltonen argues that the world where we are currently living in is so complex that we have to expand our methods of learning. If we are able to accept that our ability to understand the reality is incomplete, it will be easier to accept reasoning originally introduced by Aristotle based on which we cannot predict right means to end up to any final result. In many cases the final results remain unknown and are affected by multiple factors until we go forward with possible solutions. Based on Aaltonen this complexity should be approached with common sense and situation specific leadership rather than predefined methods or techniques. In other words, when encountering uncertainty, we should utilize experimental development to learn more about the situation. The Lean Startup methodology (Ries 2011, 2017) guides us to test, measure, validate learning and then iterate. At the same time, we will learn which processes produce value to our customers, and also those that do not. The latter should be eliminated, or at least as much as possible diminished as waste to be able to focus on the processes and actions creating value to our customers.

Based on Mezirow (1991) Suominen (2013) has also researched a deep level of ontology by presenting levels of abstraction and discussing their connection to the conception of learning. Different levels of abstraction are connected to different reflection as follows:

– first level of abstraction (behaviorism) – reflection about content of behaviors
– second level of abstraction (cognitivism / constructivism) – reflection about processes of actions
– third level of abstraction (socio-constructivism / emanciopatorial learning) – critical reflection and reflection about principles based on why we act.

The summary of reflection levels (Suominen 2013) is presented in Table 1.

Reflection level (based on Mezirow) Theoretical dimension to learning and reflection Dimension of cognitive actions
Reflection of content. Answers to question ”what”. Emphasis on cognitive content.Cognitive and behavioristic conception of learning (self-reflection)Bodily and psychological area of interpretations (first level of abstraction)
Reflection of process (answers to question ”how”); emphasis on methods)Cognitive and constructivist conception of learning (self-reflection)Psychological area of interpretations (second level of abstraction)
Refection of fundamentals of actions (answers to question ”why”; emphasis on meanings)Socio-constructivistic conception of learning (critical reflection)Existentialistic area of interpretations (third level of abstraction)

Table 1. Types of reflection and their connection to conceptions of learning.

2.4 How to organize and lead a reflection dialogue?

Every individual has their unique interpretation of reality and events. Without sharing this interpretation with others via dialogue (Bohm 1996; Isaacs 1993, 1999) it is pointless to presume that we would understand beliefs and assumptions lying beneath other peoples’ thoughts. How we think leads to how we act and therefore it is important to open our thinking to other people via dialogue. It usually leads to best results in reflection. At the same time this kind of openness is for many people challenging or even frightening. It is not easy to let other people examine our own way of thinking, our judgments made based on incomplete or even misleading information, our attitudes, and biases.

By encouraging oneself to go to the zone of discomfort – in other words practicing dialogue skills with a more experienced facilitator or coach – an individual can learn new levels of reflection. When individuals learn to see disagreements as possibilities to learn and are willing to listen without judgement we will move forward from unproductive debate to really thinking together (Isaacs 1993, 1999; Bohm 1996; Gray 2007). By deepening reflection of learning several organizations have gained remarkable learning results and after a delay also economic results (Argyris & Schön 1996; Senge 2006; Hamel & Green 2007; Hamel 2012).

2.5 What to reflect and when?

Based on the feedback gained in several workshops and coaching sessions during the past few years, reflection immediately after action is challenging. Currently after a workshop, the participants may be emotionally biased and a deeper analysis of learning results may not be possible. We suggest that the reflection immediately after action should be focused only into two issues: 1) a loose script of what happened during the innovation workshop and 2) perceived feelings during the workshop put into timeline. Making a script of the workshop creates a framework for further reflection and making notes about feelings helps to recall the individual experiences later in a more versatile manner. After one or two weeks, these notes will be valuable keys to a more organized reflection on past events.

Reflection, like learning in general, should utilize all our senses. This objective is usually hard to achieve in conventional learning environments. Yet, visual representations and auditory elements can be quite easily embedded in workshops and reflection. Visualizing challenges and experiences individually or in the group might provide important starting points for further learning. An example of how reflection could be organized is presented in Figure 1.

Before workshop: what is reflection and how do we utilize it in innovation workshops? Immediately after workshop: reflection dialogue of what happened during the workshop and how did you experience it. 1-2 weeks after workshop: return to previous notes and discuss learning in general and write and send written reflection to facilitator.

Figure 1. An example how to utilize reflection in workshops. (Figure: Pasi Juvonen)

2.6 Role of a coach in reflection

Coach / host of a dialogue is a trusted person, whose trustworthiness is a cornerstone of reflective dialogue. Other preconditions for reflective dialogue are:

  • When people learn new skills at the beginning, they will make many errors. A psychologically safe environment for learning and experimenting new ideas has to be created (Schein 1993).
  • In many cases, we are working with topics, which do not have single correct answers.
  • Every participant’s thoughts are valued equally.
  • Every participant should be involved to contribute.
  • The main objective is a mutual benefit and better understanding – no one has to win.
  • Thinking aloud, especially when making decisions, may be very beneficial (Schrage 2000).
  • Who will benefit? Who will not? These questions may directly open new viewpoints.
  • Form groups with individuals with different backgrounds. From the learning viewpoint, these groups are most valuable (Denning and Dunham 2010). They are able to question your thoughts and help you to see what you would be not able to see when working with like-minded people.
  • If there is power or hierarchy present in the reflection dialogue, part of the reflection can take place as written individual tasks. In these situations, the coach is the only person who is able to access all the data, and presents only a summary of it publicly.

The most important objective for reflective dialogue is to surface the essential targets for development to be able to discuss how they could be further tackled. Flexibility in structures when organizing the gathering of reflection data is encouraged and therefore anonymous reflection data should be welcomed.

The time for a reflection dialogue is usually limited, one or at most two hours, which means that there is no possibility to wait and see what naturally emerges. In these kinds of situations, it is essential for the coach to act as a timer for actions, and when needed, to interrupt over-length statements and activate passive participants, who may have valuable information and observations about the subject at hand.

2.7 How could we utilize this information?

In LAB University of Applied Sciences, we have over 150 ongoing RDI projects. Within these projects, one common action is a workshop of some kind with participating organizations. Before Covid-19, these workshops were mostly employed face-to-face. Currently, almost all RDI actions are employed online with tools such as Teams or Zoom. By utilizing video, voice and chat the reflection dialogue can be easily deployed and its results reflected.

We tend to document a lot of information about content and results of projects. We document far less our learning experiences about the actions, methods, tools, and models that we have been using when creating the content carrying out those results. We should put more focus on sharing our success stories and especially those situations when things started to go south. This would help us to accumulate shared knowledge base and learn from each other. Reflection dialogue described in this article could offer means to take this objective into practice.

3. Discussion

Some organizations fail in their efforts to learn. Emphasizing “what” and “how” of learning, organizations may in the worst case learn efficiently but totally irrelevant content or procedures. Continuous initiative learning and reflection where “why” is asked often will also be needed. We should start with the why -question as Simon Sinek (Sinek, 2009) has also put it.

Without an ability to reflect, an organization might end up being a prisoner of its own history. In addition, reflection is not enough. What has been learned through reflection has also to be spread to other groups and to the whole organization. The learning outcomes have to be told – and at the same time, they have to be heard. One or both of these procedures often fail, although we tend to claim the opposite.

In many textbooks, Google Inc. has been used as a positive example concerning information sharing. Google is said to have developed dynamics capabilities – in other words, employees at Google are able to learn rapidly when the situation requires it. This is a result of learned collectivity supported by the management team that welcomes change. Collectivity includes information sharing and reflection.

Durable motivation for the task at hand always builds from within, and together we can create circumstances to support it. Therefore, also the reflection dialogue will succeed best when the participants want to achieve better results than before. It has been said “one who wants will find means, and one who does not want, will find the excuses”. This is well applicable to all learning. When we want to achieve, there are plenty of tools, methods and content available for us, and if we do not want to achieve, no tool or method will help.

Furthermore, when we want to achieve different kinds of results, we have to be courageous enough to experiment and utilize new learning methods, practices, organize time for reflection, and make it possible to spread learning experiences to other groups and organizational level. These actions together will help any organization to build an innovative organizational culture needed in 2020’s.

We often tend to forget that employing new practices within an organization takes time and the organizational culture changes slowly. Before one can expect results and impact, there will always be some delay. Underneath, however, there probably are several parallel learning processes going on invisibly. Developing dynamic capabilities described in this article takes time. There is a saying: ”Human is the only animal who builds its own cage.” meaning that if we have built structures and procedures by ourselves and they are hindering us, we are also the ones who are able to change them when it is needed.


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Pasi Juvonen is the RDI Director of Commercialization of Innovations at the LAB University of Applied Sciences.

Illustration: https://pxhere.com/fi/photo/559565 (CC0)

Published 29.6.2020

Reference to this article

Juvonen, P. 2020. Learning through reflection of innovation related actions. LAB RDI Journal. [Cited and date of citation]. Available at: https://www.labopen.fi/en/lab-rdi-journal/learning-through-reflection-of-innovation-related-actions/