This excellent blog about chronic excessive workload in the UK’s NHS, from the highly respected Suzie Bailey and Michael West at The Kings Fund, makes for disturbing reading yet it has a silver lining.  Whilst some of the solutions to the challenges require change at the national level, there are also effective local solutions. The one that interests me most is this. “Teams that take time out to reflect together are between 35% and 40% more productive.” That’s a pretty impressive figure.

If you were told that a new product line was 35% more profitable than other options, I’m fairly sure you would want to include it. If you were told that staff sickness could be reduced by 40%, I’m guessing that you would be very interested. Yet, despite the research on the value of structured team learning being as robust as any, the majority of organisations, whether public or private, do none of it. Why might that be? These are some of the answers I’ve come across.

“We don’t have time for it”

 This is a very common response because there is always a sense of urgency to achieve deadlines and fight fires in the modern organisation. Yet the time taken to reflect and learn together will invariably SAVE time, as the insights gained mean better decisions are made and the fires are caught when they are small.

“Talking doesn’t get us anywhere” 

The bias towards action plans and forward motion is endemic in our culture and people are praised for finding solutions, regardless of their quality. Talking can indeed fail to get us where we want to be, but so can a rushed decision, a disengaged workforce or a report whose recommendations are ignored. In contrast, Bailey and West mention a number of structured talking approaches that are well designed to get us somewhere, and in a timely and meaningful way. After Action Review (AAR) is one of those recommended.

“We are fearful about what it might reveal”

Fear is a powerful influencer of behaviour so this response, though rarely expressed, is often present below the surface. Senior leaders might wish to avoid too close an examination of their decisions or more junior staff may feel worried that they will be blamed. Team reflection does require a level of openness to be of any value, and that can raise anxiety in anticipation and lead to a reluctance to engage with it. However, each of the structured approaches Bailey and West advocate, have guidelines and processes in place to remove blame and increase psychological safety so those fears can be and are mitigated.

“We don’t know how to do it well”

I think this is one of the most and least legitimate of the responses. Most of today’s senior leaders and managers will not have experienced good and effective structured team reflection practices. Unless you work at Pixar, or have a military background, structured team learning is unlikely to be a familiar experience. So it means you have to learn how to do it from scratch. Yet there are numerous opportunities available to help you learn any one of the structured approaches Bailey and West mention so learning how to do it well is within your reach.

“It’s not very business-like”

We have a set of expectations of what effective organisations look like, and team learning sessions, in whatever form they take, do not conform to these. We blithely  assume that we and those around us have all the knowledge we need to do our jobs already, especially those more senior than us. Obviously, we are disappointed in these expectations sometimes, but we blame the individual rather than the situation. The reality is that in today’s working environments no one has sufficient knowledge to do their jobs, because of the complexity of the interactions and multiple moving parts.  Team learning and reflection activities ensure you can access the wisdom of others and make good decisions as a result.

“It’s not how we do things around here”

This is probably the real reason why most organisations fail to undertake any reflective practice in teams, but it’s usually disguised in one of the answers given above. We are creatures of habit, unless forced to change by the external environment, and prefer the comfort of our current state regardless of its inefficiencies and difficulties. The energy required to overcome the inertia of the status quo can seem daunting and the risk of “rocking the boat” a little too risky so, whilst we like the idea of team learning, we turn away from opportunities to do it. The danger of course, is that your competitors may decide to make team learning the thing THEY do and gain that 40% productive advantage.

These answers are likely to be familiar to you, and they are all within your sphere of control to change if you choose to. Please get in touch if you would like help with introducing the AAR structured approach to team learning.