While driving to a conference last week I overheard a conversation between two former UK Housing Ministers on the radio. The terrible Grenfell Tower fire in London is certainly stirring things up.
What caught my attention was their conclusion that whilst in government they never had time to look back and reflect. The pressure for them, and their civil servants, was always to be looking for the next solution. The next big thing, without really seeing the results of past initiatives.
There appeared to be genuine sadness and a sense of having missed the point in their voices. Profound lessons rarely come easily.
So why do we find it difficult to reflect?
We do live in a world where people and organisations are more clearly held to account than in previous eras. This is healthy.
The flip side is that when things do go wrong we want answers quickly. And we want someone to blame. We want to be able to put the event or issue in a box with a clear label, and move on… not least so it doesn’t come too close for comfort.
When we are running fast, with full diaries and long to-do lists, taking time for reflection seems like a luxury. So we keep pushing on.
And so do our peers, colleagues and friends.
We rush ahead, without realising what we’re missing or have even lost, because we don’t see the value of looking back.
We also want to know what to do when stuff happens. Not doing something to make the situation better is uncomfortable. So we are constantly looking forward, solving problems as they arise. But perhaps not looking in the rear view mirror to see why they arose in the first place.
It’s interesting that there are glimmers of a shift from the “Don’t tell me the problem – just give me the solution” culture of management. However, this maturing of leadership is patchy and collective reflection is not common place.
Gazing in the mirror isn’t something most of us choose to do. It’s uncomfortable to look too long.
However, I am starting to find that there is real power for transformation if I can summon the courage to look. I see that I do have resilience in the face of adversity or the unknown. So that’s hopeful. But I also see my tendency to step forward without really evaluating the risks. And I assume, without checking, that others are on the same page as me.
Patterns emerge if we are prepared to look, whether that is individually or collectively.
Our need for meaning
As human beings we have an inbuilt need for meaning making and completion. To be psychologically healthy we can’t properly move on until we’ve made sense of where we are now. However, we have collectively schooled ourselves to live in a state of constant ‘unfinishedness’. Hopping to the next issue whilst hoping we stay balanced.
At a personal level making a change requires an intentional act. Given our culture it won’t happen on its own.
One size doesn’t fit all. Some of us need time to talk it out – like the joint ‘ah-ha’ moment in the radio conversation. Others need permission to think and even physically capture it in some way, like a journal.
Whatever it takes.
But not stepping back to see the patterns and finding the means of closure is so short-sighted. We can do better than that.
Are you ready to look?