Mirror Mirror, On the Wall: Learning in a Crowded Life

mirrorbyPhotoComiXonFlickrCC14 years ago I did my first overseas gig in Central Asia. I stayed with the project over three years including a number of trips to Armenia to work with the team on the ground. (See White-2005-Little) Ostensibly I was there to help facilitate learning around using online tools for community development, particularly in rural towns being connected via a school connectivity project. But in the end, what I realized was that my role was as a mirror for the team to see itself.

As we had our final closing circle for an After Action Review before the project began its transition away from the organization to the Ministry of Education, we started with the first question “What did we intend to do?” That was pretty easy. The project had a clear mandate, goals, and measurable intermediate outputs. We transitioned quickly into “What did we actually do.” There were the things we had dealt with, change, reformations of assumptions and operating conditions, etc. No big surprises.

When we got to the third question, “What did we learn?” we sat for a moment in silence, pondering. You could feel something change in the room. The concern that the Ministry would muck it all up, unspoken, but present. The acknowledgement of grief of having to let the program grow was palpable. Maybe even a sense of failure, fearing the transition was untenable.

Then one of the amazing women of the program opened her mouth and helped us begin. She said something to the effect of “Nancy Jan, you have helped me realize how much we have grown in our ability to really support change in our communities.” Then it began to flow, and the group unearthed first changes in themselves, the lessons they learned. From there insights about structural and environmental factors emerged in ways that were constructive for subsequent work – for the Ministry’s and their own. Something broke open. It was no longer a laundry list of things done.

The ability to learn lessons about projects, to surface them and analyze them with sufficient clarity starts with the ability to learn about ourselves. To reflect on our ways of working, of perceiving the work we do, of our assumptions and blind spots. This team had started with little appreciation of their own skills, their ability to influence their partners and stakeholders, and their deep creativity sprung from their even deeper commitment to their work. If anything, they hid their own light.

I’m currently working on two projects that are, in essence, about how we learn from our work. One is the development of a self-paced eLearning module on Experience Capitalization, which is a process for describing project work, extracting lessons and recommendations, creating communications products and channels for those lessons so they can be seen, adapted and used by others with similar interests and goals. How do we build our individual and organizational capacity to do that? My mirror role is to try and understand and interpret the content created by subject matter experts, and see it through novice eyes.

The second project is as a very peripheral participant helping a knowledge management initiative pick up clues to what is being learned about the learning in the project. How do we notice useful bits, pick them up, reflect on them and share them? The team leader has expressed a very open willingness to start with himself, which is rare and wonderful. So mirrors up!

I keep going back to that moment in Armenia, and the same element emerges. We often don’t (or can’t) see what is right in front of us, mostly because we are too busy, working too fast, and can’t seem to find the “mirror” to stop and look ourselves in the eye and reflect. We may lack some basic structure or affordances TO reflect. What if we took time to reinsert reflection and these affordances into our work? Would something change?

Is it that simple?

I don’t think it is that simple, or that learning from doing IS simple. But this pattern of finding a moment to “be heard” – even if by our own selves, is critical to both identifying and internalizing/applying learning. It is that moment of taking a breath before we do something new, something technical or challenging. Focus. Attention.

So back to the mirror. When you ask someone, heck, when you pay someone else to help you learn, you take the time to learn. One of those odd incentives that seem silly because of course we want to learn. But we don’t. That’s when the mirror role comes in very handy.

As much as I LOVE being the mirror (it is a fantastic role), it is not a sustainable strategy when learning becomes a matter of importance as it is in my work in international development. Think of the learning that is, or SHOULD be going on now with the Ebola epidemic.

I am going to write about this a few more times in the coming weeks and months to try and whittle down one or two things that are actionable, doable and can be motivated from within to leverage more learning from our work, and helping it connect with others who may be able to use our learning.

Image by PhotoComIX on Flickr, Creative Commons

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