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

The importance of teams

Being a part of a high performing team is a pretty rewarding thing. What few people realise is that it rarely happens overnight, and is incredibly special when it does.

Pulling the weight

I’ll admit it, I never used to like working on teams. A team always meant pulling someone else’s weight and dealing with last minute scrambles to do work that someone else committed to delivering and didn’t. I’ve talked about how everyone wins when everyone contributes here, but sadly this is not always the case.

Over years of working in ineffective teams, it became easier to promise only what I could deliver and so I became an advocate for independent projects. Truth be told, even when I started to manage people I was selective about how I continued to work within the team I was leading. This is a bad habit to get into and only serves to create large groups of people doing tasks in a similar space.

Nothing changes without new inputs

In order to create a new output something has to change or be introduced. Yes, as an individual I was able to get things done. I was able to consistently deliver at a reasonable level, but nothing was pushing me forward.

Working independently doesn’t offer as many chances to grow a skill base or challenge ideas. By working with others, you are able to collaborate and create great ideas and output from what would otherwise be good enough, but not spectacular.

Some people would argue that they are pushed by reading and engaging with new content through independent development efforts and while this is partially true, we cannot always see past a single idea or concept limiting the scope of our ability to grow. A second (or third, or fourth) set of eyes, experiences, and ideas offers us that new perspective to help us develop.

Making things great

Great teams challenge one another through dialogue, brainstorming and more. By introducing new variables, (such as alternate skill-sets and backgrounds), we are able to develop hybrids of our approaches that meet the needs in new ways.

Sometimes this leads to creating something that is entirely new. This magic cannot happen without a collaborative approach to delivery.

With good comes bad

Challenging a person’s ideas is a place for potential growth and has the high potential to create conflict. Having lived through some pretty tense team environments, I can say that this is something that should be addressed early on.

Setting expectations for engagement and conflict resolution early in the effort cam serve to avoid or limit the scope of these issues. I understand that one bad experience can create a bit of fear when it comes to team delivery, I have to say that when it all comes down to the end it is all worth the drama.

My discovery: great teams are strange polygamous relationships.

Each person finds their way to contribute and cares for the team dynamic differently. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great people I might never have met because of team assignments and I am better for them all.

In order to create high functioning teams, tools like charters, communication plans, and expectation management are critical.

There are lots of resources out there that can help, but Lane Sherman, a former team coach of mine recently wrote a book that really steps you through everything you need. You can buy it here. I was lucky enough to help provide feedback on it, and he has done a great job taking some of the mystery out of developing (or fixing) teams.

 

 

Inquiry into Inquiry

Data-driven research has always been something that made sense to me. For many years, I have created surveys that ask specific questions that can be sliced and diced into action points when I receive the data. I love simple yes and no answers and yet, here I find myself in the midst of social sciences, which introduces so many new levers that can be pulled to adjust every part of the research and the results.

I’ve spent a few days just trying to wrap my head around terminology that sounds like made up words. Phenomenology or hermeneutics for example just don’t sound real in my head. I understand that they are just concepts I haven’t been exposed to and in a few months they will be a normal part of my day, but they are new to me now.

Combine that with the idea of all of the bias and personal ethical values that I have been loading onto my neutral mathematical surveys and here I sit….

Mind, blown.

Erin Burrell: Calvin and Hobbes Perception
Perception is complicated

Perception is complicated
Yes, I admit to being biased. You have bias too.
We all have historical biases of some type. These are not intentional but from the way we were raised to the places we live and work, we perceive ideas in a way that is unique to our personal make-up. That means that when we ask or answer a question it carries all of the weight of every day we have spent on the planet regardless of what it asks us.
I can recall getting calls from telemarketers (before I blocked my number) and having their pronunciation of my name impact the way I responded to them. A person in some call centre has no way of knowing if they are correct, and I shouldn’t hold it against them, but my name is personal to me and getting it wrong may impact the way I respond. Right or wrong. We can’t always help it when our feelings are involved. Unfortunately, I could skew the data set because of something that has nothing to do with my thoughts on my long distance service.

How do you define ethical?
Once again our values as individuals add weight to the impact of the questions we ask and how we go about asking them. This concept leads me to some movie where a police officer asks questions of a suspect under duress. Yes, they were trying to do the right thing, but it was not necessarily carried out under what another person might define as an ethical situation since the person being questioned was not fully in control of their environment and/or faculties.

“Don’t under estimate the importance of body language” Ursula The Little Mermaid

Erin Burrell: Ursula Body Language
Don’t under estimate the importance of body language

I understand that I placed a cartoon here. I’m making light of something that adds incredible importance to social science research. I’ve wrapped the last point in my post around something that I think will leave you with a good memory of the experience of reading this post, further creating bias and impacting your views on my work.

Every thing in the way someone asks a question, interviews a person, or responds can impact the results of the inquiry. So, next time you answer a question or survey ask yourself if what you are answering is really all truth or just a little bit about something else.

Resources:

Content concepts:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/index.html

Mindful Inquiry into Social Research http://www.amazon.ca/Mindful-Inquiry-Research-Valerie-Malhotra/dp/0761904093/ref=sr_1_fkmr2_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1434795240&sr=8-1-fkmr2&keywords=Mindful+inquiry+into+social+research

Image source: Calvin and Hobbes

Image source: The Little Mermaid

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.

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.