Personal Reflection-increasing understanding by making space

The need to have time to reflect is critical to solidify learning theories for students and professionals alike. By acknowledging the space between what we read or hear and what we already know we are able to create links between the two. It is through these associations that new ideas and perspectives are born.

Making time

When I headed back to school to complete my MBA in 2012 I had an instructor (Kim Gunning-Mooney)  recommend we focus on taking the time to reflect. She explained what I think was some version of my description above (honestly I was mentally and physically exhausted for most of MBA so I can’t guarantee that I am totally accurate here, but she deserves credit), and rationalized that we would never imagine what this space could do for the development of our ideas.

Honestly, I thought it was crap. What would writing down my thoughts about what I had read, seen, or heard do for my ability to write an assignment or to do my job?

LOTS!

We often don’t realise how our brains create connections, but in many cases it is when we aren’t studying a topic that we begin to understand it. Have you ever had that moment in the shower or driving to work when everything suddenly makes sense?

That is the power of space to reflect.

Creating connections

I spend a lot of my professional time telling stories to clients and partners. Customising the story to each individual is critical to making it relevant to them and this is where I discovered how reflection helps us make connections.

Many of the early years of my career were spent in the home improvement industry. This causes me to tell a lot of stories about how computer software/employee engagement /management/ marketing/leadership is like the plumbing in your home.

Stay with me here….

You often don’t take the time to think about your plumbing or FILL IN THE BLANK business challenge until it is broken and find yourself in a hurry to get it fixed before you are covered in poop. In a really bad circumstance, it is being covered in poop that tells you the problem exists in the first place.

The importance of the analogy (or any analogy really) is the fact that people can suddenly see the connection between two ideas and just how urgent or serious the challenge they are facing has become.

Our ability as experts to connect the dots matters more than the dots themselves

By walking away from a challenge, literally or figuratively we are able to encourage our brains to connect these new concepts with the information that we have already internalised.

Build compelling arguments

I used to follow my gut on everything. Gut instinct is a powerful thing, to be sure, but honestly it is meaningless when you are pitching a multi-million dollar venture to the board for sign off. You need to have evidence (shown through the connections) in order to make a point.

You: “Hey board of experts I just know that this is a good idea so can I have some cash, please?”

Them: “Yeah, nah bro.”

But when we have some evidence (I consider all ideas evidence to create a compelling argument), and then we combine it with gut instinct and past experiences we are able to make connections that create a compelling and successful business case in many situations.

You: “Hi board of experts we have a challenge and it can be met by combining this times that. We believe it will work because of this idea X connection = result and this idea X connection = result.”

Them: “Well of course! Here are your millions of dollars”

Yes, this may be a bit of a simplified circumstance, but the likelihood of creating those connections is infinitely higher when take the time to reflect and internalise new information. A few steps that work for me are below, but feel free to reflect in whatever way you find effective.

  1. Write down what the content told you in your own words:
    1. Create a summary of what you read so that a fifth grader can understand it.
    2. Journal about the items you are reading. When you start telling the story you connect items without thinking about it.
    3. If you can’t summarise it yet, that’s ok move to step 2
  2. Brainstorm around the topic:
    1. Use a mind map or fishbone diagram to list concepts and create connections between them. The lines are the part that matters most
    2. Use a word blurb to see what concepts repeat most in the article. Tools like Wordle are awesome for this.
    3. Use your favourite method of brainstorming, the method is not as important as taking the time to do it
  3. Walk away
    1. Go for a run, take your kids to the park, binge watch some OITNB, read a trashy novel, it doesn’t matter what it is just get away from the work for a few minutes/hours/days as your timeline allows and let your brain do its thing.

What’s in it for you?

This is the age-old question when we put a task in front of someone. Why would you give up something you value (time, space, money) in exchange for this thing?

Reflecting makes connections faster than reading or listening to lectures alone. It helps us to find ways to internalise the idea and merge it with our personal expertise to make it valid and relevant. AND even if you don’t get anything special from it at that moment, we are raising our likelihood for shower Ah ha! moments exponentially just by trying something new.

 

References:

Reflection is the most important part of the learning process

Mind Tools Brainstorming

An open letter of immense gratitude

As I began to write the list of acknowledgements for my graduate project I realised that most of my thanks need to go to many who will never read such a document. Gratitude this large and passionate deserves broadcast to an audience wider than just that of a paper filed neatly in a folder somewhere.

My life has changed a lot over the last few years. I have a new partner, friends, company, job and now a new country. The person many of you met was going through a massive change and I credit my success this far to each and every one of you.

I’ve finally started to become a version of myself that I respect, on my way to being the person I want to be when I grow up. Certainly, not the version someone else wants, but one I was seeing in my head and heart not so long ago. I jumped into a hurricane and ended up on a quest to this new life by walking the yellow brick road and meeting all of you along the way.

There have been scary times during this adventure I promise. I have made choices that are not at all popular and certainly unconventional but I have grown and evolved. Today I feel that it is time that I offer credit to all of you who helped me get here.

To my partner: you are my everything, my future and I am (literally) willing to follow you to the end of the world.

To my family: yes, I am different than what you thought I would be. No less flawed, but it is with the knowledge that you will love me anyway that I have had the courage to make the leaps I have so far and those I am merely plotting for the future.

To my support system and chosen families: you know who you are. You cheered me on, heard me cry, told me I WAS good enough, strong enough and smart enough. You pushed me up hills that I never would have challenged both physically and emotionally. You offered honest and sometimes hard feedback to help me grow and change and I am forever in your debt.

To my team, company and customers: it has been the act of working for you that has made me willing to forget about myself. Thank you for helping me to see the big picture.

To my scholastic colleagues and leaders: each day I spend with you in my life I become stronger and more capable to face what the future brings. I am lucky to know each of you and credit you among my nearest and dearest.

So, with a little love and honesty I need to offer credit to each of you for the massive dent that my bucket list has taken over the past few years. I credit your support for the fact that it has also more than doubled despite the long list of items marked happily with a strike through. You are helping to push me forward and for that I am eternally grateful.

Kotter is my Pal

It’s funny, when I started writing each new paper I kept hitting a wall when I wanted to credit my sources.  When I was attempting to follow the formal rules for citing a source, I was also breaking apart the framework that made my argument solid with a clumsy transition from my interpretation of the idea into the actual source of the idea itself.

It just occurred to me that the easiest papers to read were written as though the writer had just had a chat with the original idea guy or gal.  They were discussing a concept and using evidence from other peoples work seamlessly because of the level of familiarity that they had with the raw concept and the source writer.

In many cases the research papers and journal articles that I am reading are written by some of the greatest minds in the business community.  These writers are prolific and have produced books, articles, case studies and even have YouTube channels all about their concepts.  What I discovered is that I too, am getting to know these brilliant minds.  I now understand and can use examples from the different works because I am getting familiar with their theories.

I will be referring to these gifted academics in papers (respectfully and with the correct CMOS footnotes) as though I know them.  The risk of not giving sources credit is too high to not work as hard as I can at finding a way to do this well.  I am going to try this approach for my next two papers.  Kaplan, Miles, Kotter et al are now my friends and trusted inner circle.  Starting today I will be crediting them the same way I would credit an idea from a call with my mom or lunch with a friend.

My goal from this test is to see if it helps my writing become fluid again and see if it helps me to take some of the crispy tone out of the sentences supported by a citation.  From what I understand this is a skill that needs practice and will someday become something I no longer have to work at.  Until such time as I can integrate credit with the best of them, these celebrities of academia are my peeps.

Life Changing Septembers

I find it funny that my very favourite month of the year in Ontario (September) has become my month away from home.  For the last three years my September’s have been filled with life changing adventures, loaded with new ideas, given me new friends and sent me home to Ontario with fresh perspectives on life, work, and who I am.

Twenty Ten

Erin Burrell and Helene Fournier Lower Sackville
Last day of riding 2010 SNKCR

It all began in 2010 when I decided to ride my bike across Canada as a member of the Sears National Kids Cancer Ride (SNKCR).  I joined a group of strangers in Vancouver for a bike ride to raise funds for paediatric cancer causes and to drive awareness.  I had no idea that I would get so much back for my effort.  The group of volunteers and riders (approximately 100 people) come together for an amazing cause and became my family.

SNCKR 2011 Erin and Dan
Volunteers for a Cause

Twenty Eleven

In my quest to pay forward all that I experienced from the 2010 ride, I hopped on the bandwagon as a member of the support crew for SNKCR 2011.  Armed with the knowledge of what the riders were going through and the feeling of how much my volunteers gave to me, I headed across Canada again.  This time it was a different experience.  Many of the people there started as my family and each of the new riders and crew were a welcome addition to our world.

Twenty Twelve

Motivated by the last two years of giving back to my community I made the choice to give back to myself.  Enrolling in the Royal Roads MBA program was a big step for me in helping to move forward as a professional and as a person.  What I was not expecting was that this was another huge adventure.  School has been something I have thought about for quite some time, but not something that I was prepared to commit to.  I was sure that I would learn a lot, but I had no idea I would change as a person.  The program includes two residencies and a bunch of online learning and programs along the way.

I spent the last three weeks in Victoria BC on my first residency engaged in team projects, outstanding classes and absorbing as much content as I possibly could.  During all of this academic learning came a great deal of personal growth.  Being in a safe place to ask the question “how does my action effect another person?” was incredibly empowering.  It helped me to better understand my own choices and to listen before making a judgement about another person.

At least the weather was good for crutches

The Lessons

Each year I have taken a number of personal lessons away from my experiences.  These lessons were not easily earned and in many cases came with many obstacles that I had to overcome before I could get to the lesson at all.

In 2010 I learned how to feel genuine emotion again by learning how to cry after years of thinking that tears were a sign of weakness. I became liberated by understanding that emotion is what makes us whole.  In 2011 I learned that the little things you do for another person can make their lives better in big ways.

This year was the biggest personal lesson so far.  I learned that asking others to help you is sometimes more of a gift to them than to you. Navigating the campus on crutches was hard, but learning that I can ask for help will last a lot longer than a broken leg.

Now I find myself wondering what life changing adventures are ahead of me next September…..The world is full of lessons if you are willing to show up on time for class.

Breakthroughs (The Road to my MBA Post 2)

Late last week my team found it’s groove.  We began to communicate effectively, and discovered that as a group we can really work together to get things done.  We became a high functioning team after a number of challenging tasks were presented for us to complete together.

On more than one occasion I was struck with the idea that I could get so much more done alone, and during those times I could have. What is magical is when the team shifts as a group and starts to produce to the volume of their communal capacity. It took us twelve days to get to a place that many teams may never reach.  It wasn’t easy, but it does say a lot about what effective communication can do to help a group move forward together.

I’ve worked on lots of “teams”, but they were more just groups of people following the demands/requirements that a boss set out for us.  We didn’t collaborate on the best methods or approaches to problem solving, we just did it the way the boss said to.

I can admit that I have also been a”boss” at times when I thought I was a leader.  Instead of having a dialogue with my reports I was mandating that they complete a project or task my way.  Being a leader is an evolution.  You need to grow with your team and take turns following another person’s ideas through so that you can understand what the best way to tackle a problem really is.  You need to do things wrong, so that you really know and understand when you do them right.

Leading means learning and growing, not dictating.

Title Goes Here- (The Road to my MBA-Post 1)

This is my topic sentence. Anyone who has ever gone “back to school” after a time away from academia knows that the sentence above is funny.  Not funny as in “Ha! Ha!”, more funny as in “ouch…hehehe”.  This is mostly due to the fact that we as business professionals are more used to keeping our messages down to the most condensed bullet points that can be read in one screen view of a mobile device and less concerned with whether or not our overall communications have flow.

The idea of going back to school was not forced upon me, but has actually been something that I have been toying with for a couple of years now.  I am not sure when I decided that getting an MBA was a must have bucket list item, but I know that once I decided that I was doing it, it all came together very fast.  The school and the program type came to me organically as I rated and reviewed all of the programs available.  Once I decided on Royal Roads , all of the rest of the items just flowed right behind it.

MBA @ RRU

Life Changing

At the end of May I had a conversation with the Dean of the Faculty of Management and the program manager and knew that this was the right program for me.  With an outstanding level of academic achievement and a much higher than average age (43 versus 26), I was going to go to school with leaders from many different industries, and I was going to be able to learn from everyone there.  The other learners in the program would be leaders from every industry there was.  The perspectives and life lessons presented were going to come from talented professors AND every other person in the room.  I was going to learn so much in this program!

I applied… now what?

Much like anything in my life it all came together almost overnight.  Not quite “Erin Burrell please cross the stage” fast, but speedy, none the less.  From application to the first day of class, just over five weeks passed.  From the day I was accepted to today it has been less than two months, and here I am in the fifth week of the program.

Back in Class

The program is designed as a mostly online model, but includes two three week “intensive” residency sessions, the first of which I am at the end of day ten.  I’m tired.  My brain is so busy, that I’m not sure it is going to have room for the readings I have to do for tomorrow’s classes.  I woke up this morning unsure if the case study I read last night,  had been read thinking of the right course (for those of you who are interested… I was thinking strategy when I should have been thinking of organizational behaviour and yes, I re-read it).  We are busy, between team and individual assignments, reading and trying to absorb the materials most of the students, myself included are going from about 6am-midnight.

Over the last ten days I have had my writing and thinking processes ripped apart in order to make room for the new tools that my professors and fellow learners are giving me.  This exercise is not just necessary in order to help me grow as a leader, it is mandatory in order to help me to expand my notions of what it means to be a leader.  Each comment in the margins of an assignment is designed to help me to understand the lessons that my instructors are teaching me, don’t get me wrong…they still hurt a little but I am learning my ass off!

Have I mentioned my broken leg?

Oh… so…yeah, I fell and broke my leg practicing hits at roller derby.  When?  Well gee… I was in the hospital the morning of our first day of online classes, but it’s ok.  Yes, it is hard to get around a campus that has more than it’s fair share of stairs on crutches, but the entire campus is helping me!  Every member of the staff has gone out of their way to help make my RRU experience better.  It goes well beyond opening doors and offering me shortcuts, they have made the girl on crutches feel welcome and not even slightly out of place.

So here I am… just around 5% of the way through the program and couldn’t be more pleased that I made the choice to come.  I will do my best to share my journey along the way, but really… both you and I know that I should be doing homework right now.  Conclusion goes here.