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The Importance of Reflective Practice: Learning as You Do

Put on your boots. 

In this post, we are heading into the swampy lowlands of real-world problems. 

The Swampy Lowlands

But first, some background. Each year, the BBC presents a lecture series called the Reith Lectures. Named after the BBC’s first Director-General, these presentations invite leading thinkers to share their insights. In 1970, the BBC invited Donald Schön, an MIT professor of urban systems, to present that year’s Reith Lectures. Schön titled his lectures “Change and the Industrial State.” (Schön, 1970).

In his first lecture, “The End of the Stable State,” Schön surveyed the landscape as he saw it. (Remember, this was fifty years ago.)

First, society and all its institutions are entering a continuing process of transformation. We will no longer see long periods of stability stretching over decades.

Second, to manage this process of continuous transformation, we must learn to understand and guide the process.

Third, to do that, we must become adept at learning. We must design and develop Institutions that are “learning systems.” That is, we must develop organizations capable of bringing about their own transformation.

Learning How to Learn

Finally, to design these organizations and institutions, we must now learn more about how humans learn.

The implications of Schön’s argument are profound. Organizations and institutions designed for stability have little chance of surviving in an increasingly turbulent world. We are still struggling to adjust.

Schön’s body of scholarly work is grounded in a philosophical foundation of pragmatism. He pioneered the idea that reflective practice by practitioners grappling with messy problems could lead to valuable insights and rigorous scholarly research.

He contrasted reflective practice conducted in the “swampy lowlands” of real-world problems with the technical-rational inquiries conducted by scholars in the academy (Schön, 1983). In my strategy work, I followed Schön into these swampy lowlands.

So here are some additional insights I have learned in 40 years of reflective practice:

  1. Moving away from industrial hierarchies need not be chaotic. Managed networks — what Thomas Malone at MIT called “loose hierarchies” — and adaptive team-based organizations provide the alternative (#1 below).
  2. Managing this way requires designing and guiding conversations (#2).
  3. Collaborations enable organizations to learn and adapt. These conversations are strategic and have an underlying structure (#3).
  4. These conversations combine strategic thinking with rapid experimentation to learn about complex systems (#4).
  5. An open-source operating system (#strategicdoing), ties the organization together with both rigorous and flexible protocols. This operating system provides continuous alignment and accountability as the organization learns and adapts (#5).

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Ed Morrison