3 Steps on how to facilitate a great reflection session

Before my arrival to rural Uganda, I already knew that I won’t be working only on women empowerment project. My gut feeling told me that I would be getting involved with Integrated Villages NGO strategy development. They do so many things with so little resources, so what is the impact they create; where are they heading towards and how long can they survive without any funding? 

After asking lots of questions in the field and getting slightly confused faces, I realized it was time to get some tools from my consultant drawer. But it’s too early to dive into the realm of strategy development. We firstly need to REFLECT well as a team. 

Why? Because I believe we tend to rush things too much, especially these days when everything is so dynamic. Sometimes we are like Jackson’s Hartebeest antelopes who can run fast for long distances and after a while forget why they are running in the first place. Nobody is actually chasing them. So, for me reflection is a good pause moment used to take a deep look into the mirror before you raise ELMO. 

I am quite obsessed with the reflection sessions and always raise a hand to facilitate them. There are various ways how you can do it, but I believe it’s crucial to follow these steps. 

Long evenings with Godfrey summarizing everything the org has done so far
Long evenings with Godfrey summarizing everything the org has done so far

01. Reflect on both positives and lessons learnt

Before we start reflecting, we need to know the WHY. It can be either an objective of an event or purpose of an organization or department. When it’s agreed with the group, I always write it down on a flipchart or whiteboard thus everyone can clearly see it. It serves as a good reminder for everyone.

I never put too much emphasis on the reflection method as long as we have a high quality in-depth discussion. Usually I simply go to a whiteboard and draw “+s” on one side and “∆s” on another. I always start from the positive side “What worked well”? Let’s celebrate and praise ourselves for what we have achieved. 

In the case of Integrated Villages, I created a simple overview of all initiatives they have done. I documented it in an Excel table noting down the initiative name, objective, what and how it was done, cost and finally the impact measurement/ KPI with baseline and current results from which I calculated the % improvement. 

This was a great mirror which showed us that we have done many initiatives with limited funds invested and the overall impact is positive (i.e. green). However, when we looked deeper into some of these initiatives, we also noticed that even though the overall impact is positive, we could have done better. A good example is tree planting initiative where I have used Bob and Wow problem solving technique. 

Naturally, I started to raise questions like “What can we learn?” For me it’s very important here not to be negative and don’t search for failures, but rather reflect on lessons learnt. I believe “Perfect” doesn’t exist or you simply don’t stretch yourself enough. Therefore, there is always a room for improvement, which can be jotted down in the “∆s” section. 

I sat down with Godfrey (i.e. the NGO representative) and documented lots of lessons learnt, but I somehow felt something was still missing..

After our reflection session, we agreed to plant the trees only in Hill View school
After our reflection session, we agreed to plant the trees only in Hill View school

02. Reflect with as many involved people as possible

It’s often that post-factum that we move to new things and don’t have time to look to the past. Why? Sure, the future is calling, but to ensure it’s brighter, it’s not a bad idea to look backwards. It’s also not a bad idea to involve not only yourself, even though you know the most.

After spending a few long evenings with Godfrey, I realized that we need to engage the full team in this exercise. In this case it’s a small team, so we can easily organize a face-to-face session. And we did. Beforehand we were slightly worried on how it would pan out and whether people would open up. It ended up as a great session full of additional insights and even acted as a strong team building activity. 

In my past experiences when the amount of people involved is higher and it’s unrealistic to put them all together, you might consider using other ways. For example, collecting feedback forms after an event, doing in-depth qualitative interviews or making an off-site day. My favourite was during my time at Maersk where we created graffiti walls. People were put in four different groups and reflected on four different predefined categories. It was creative, fun and effective. The engagement was really good and we got lots of different insights, which would otherwise be impossible to get from the leadership team alone.

To sum up, always consider to involve different stakeholders to get a different perspective. It’s always a good idea to consider internal or external customers, suppliers or partners and your own team. As a facilitator, please make sure that everyone is heard during the team session, ensuring the discussion is not dominated by a select number of people. 

Graffiti Wall
Graffiti Wall

03. Ensure to document and implement lessons learnt in the future

It’s great to get a list of successes or lessons learnt. It’s great you have documented it in a structured digital format and not just took a picture of the post-its wall. But what’s next? 

I have experienced many great reflection sessions, but unfortunately the same mistakes are made afterwards. It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. So if you have already reflected on those learnings, please don’t repeat them again.

This sounds very simple, yet it is actually the hardest part. Especially after time passes, those lessons learnt tend to fade out or get forgotten under time pressure.

Tips and tricks? 

Always document it in an action type forma;  “What exactly are you going to do different next time?” For example, we have learnt that many farmers didn’t continue growing newly introduced crops due to lack of water access near their land. Based on this insight, we decided to introduce crops which are resistant to a dry season and don’t require much watering. This is owned by Henry and Gonzaga, who are our agriculture experts in the team.

Monitor the effectiveness of your new action. There is this old business saying “What gets measured, gets managed”. I think this is still applicable these days too. Measure the results at gemba and see the effect. Maybe we need to adjust something or was it irrelevant?

In our case we are measuring how many farmers continued to grow the newly introduced crops for their diet diversification after a year and later. 

Integrated Villages team reflection session
Integrated Villages team reflection session

Closing words

Overall, I would say conducting reflection sessions isn’t rocket science. It doesn’t require any special skill or tools, as long as you follow the previously mentioned steps. It’s up to your creativity and matter of taste how and were you hold the reflection session.

Good luck! Please, let me know if you have additional tips and tricks which you apply for your reflection session. I’d love to read them!

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