Thinking Out Loud

It may have come to your attention that I write a fair amount. I write a great deal, in fact. I show up almost weekly here. I write for a few other sites as well. And those are just the warm-ups for the real work of deliverables and projects. As I’ve noted before, in my real life I’m a writer cleverly disguised as a consultant. Most of what I produce that constitutes “work” are reports, presentations, guides, references and various other sundry bits of formatted and structured words.

One could infer from the amount that I write that I have a lot to say. Those that know me will acknowledge that I’m frequently not lacking for opinions, certainly. I have views and perspectives to offer. I have ideas that I think are helpful. And at this point, I can draw on several decades of experience to be able to offer guidance on how to approach various different situations. And yet, that’s not why I write. At least, it’s not why I write here.

In the months since the Covid-19 pandemic started (because yes, that’s still where we are) I’ve written several series of articles. I explored where the pandemic might go (with a side trip into the value and relevance of scenarios). I also dove into how to facilitate effectively when you can’t actually meet with people in a room. Most recently, I took time to explore the levels of awareness we navigate in trying to function in a not-quite-so-rational world (that feels less rational by the week).

When I started each of these, I knew they were going to be a series. That is, I knew that I wasn’t getting everything out in one article, and there would be at least another article (and perhaps several) before I had exhausted the topic—at least for the moment. I reserve the right to revisit at will. In some instances, as I was starting I even had a sense of the arc the series would follow; I had a picture of what articles would show up, in what order.

In every recent instance of writing—and, if I’m honest, a vast number of earlier instances—what came out wasn’t necessarily what I expected. Other perspectives emerged. New articles wanted writing (sometimes several). My neatly planned arc of three or four posts became five, or seven, or eight. There were other points to be made, and my brain wasn’t going to rest until the words came out. So out they came (you’re welcome).

In my view, this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a necessary thing, and a fundamental part of my process. I very frequently don’t know what is going to get said until I say it. There are times when I don’t know how a series will end until it’s over. There are also times—more than might be apparent—that I don’t know how an article is going to end. I will generally know what I’m writing about, but where it winds up was not where I intended—and sometimes it wasn’t clear in the first place. Every once in a while, the article even decides it wants to be about a completely different topic from what was intended. This is all completely normal—at least in my head.

There is a lovely quote I came across a while ago: “I write to find out what I think.” I thought it was Neil Gaiman who said it (and he still might have). Joan Didion said the same thing, somewhat more ornately. But it turns out the quote as written is most frequently attributed to Stephen King. It encapsulates incredibly well my writing, and how I approach it.

One can argue that this blog is simply a very public personal journal, written in weekly 1800-ish-word chunks. What gets written here is very much a product of my formative thinking process, much of the time. Every once in a while I need to have a rant or express a firm truth—and those impulses very often go together—but much more of what gets written here is inquiry, not conclusion.

From my perspective, approaching writing this way has value. More people should do it, and for similar reasons. We are wallowing through a particularly complex time in human evolution, and it’s not likely to get less so any time soon. Even if we were to magically solve the problems of pandemics and populist politics, we would be still be left with an array of challenging societal issues to be wading through. We don’t lack for tough, difficult, messy problems to solve.

Solving them is an altogether different situation. There are no easy solutions, and there are lots of difficult, painful, contentious and expensive possibilities to work through. Which is partly why big issues like climate change, societal well-being, population growth and social change become relatively intractable. There are many different entrenched viewpoints, and no easy way to reconcile them and come up with meaningful ways forward. If we are going to survive as a species, though, we are going to have to figure out something. And the thinking of today has demonstrated itself to be insufficiently robust and capable of getting us to the finish line. So something else is going to be necessary.

Building new thinking is hard, though. It requires effort and exploration, and for the most part—sadly—doesn’t appear on cue. Splashes of inspiration and shouts of “eureka!”, while making for great narrative, rarely happen in real life. The actual work of coming up with new insights and ideas requires diving into ideas, messing around with them, holding them up from different angles to see what is what, and contemplating how they might be meaningfully and usefully combined with other ideas.

Exploring ideas with any degree of rigour requires ultimately writing them down. The human brain—at least the conscious part—can hang on to only so many conceptual and abstract viewpoints at a time until they implode in a puff of cobwebs, sulphur and cosmic dust. Our subconscious can do a great deal more—and there are ways to cue it into being willing to help us out—but our conscious mind is still ultimately going to need to make sense of the glimmers and warbles and blurts that our subconscious periodically lobs back up. So we are back to the writing thing once more.

There is actually a term for this; it’s called “reflective practice.” This is, unsurprisingly, a fancy term for writing down the things we are ruminating about. It is the space where we figure things out based on our experiences and actions, and the meaning that we make out of what we have done and what we might have done differently.

For anyone educated in experiential learning, the Kolb learning model is one framework for reflective practice. We have an experience; we reflect upon that experience; we develop new theories and concepts; we put them into practice; that leads to new experiences, and the whole cycle repeats on again. If we simply have the experience, no learning happens. While we can superficially reflect on the experience—we might ponder it while shopping, or having a conversation with a partner over a glass of wine—that doesn’t take on the same significance. We don’t build any lasting strategies going forward in the way that we do when we commit them to words.

In the world of projects, lessons learned reviews are a form of reflective practice writ large. In actual fact, they follow the first few steps of the Kolb learning model. The project, obviously, is the experience. The questions of “what worked well?” and “what didn’t work so well?” form the essential reflective selection of what we choose to focus on. The inevitable question of “what would/could/should we have done differently?” is where we develop new concepts and approaches. This brings us headlong to the problem of lessons learned reviews: we very often stop here, with no commitment to do anything with the insights. Lessons learned become merely lessons observed.

Committing to writing takes work. Being comfortable writing on a regular basis takes practice and effort. The discipline of setting words to paper can feel intimidating: you might not be sure of what you want to say, or the best way to say it. You may feel that your thoughts are too raw or unvarnished, too embarrassing or simply too ill-formed to think about setting down. All of those can feel like reasons not to do it, and all of them completely miss the point.

Reflection isn’t about sharing and writing for someone else’s eyes. I’ve fallen into reflection-in-public kind of by accident, but I don’t recommend it for everyone. Some days, I’m not sure I recommend it for me, but I keep going. I also get enough feedback from others that value my writing to make it seem on some level worthwhile to keep hitting “publish.” But in no way am I recommending you follow in my footsteps and put your reflective thoughts on the internet.

What I am absolutely recommending is that you right them down just for you. And the fact that they feel raw, unfinished, unpolished or incomplete is entirely the focus of the exercise. Writing them down is an act of giving your thoughts some objective distance. By writing them down, setting them on the page and sitting with them, you are able to make sense of where you are at. Periodically going back and reviewing your notes—weeks, months or even years later—you are able to get a sense of progression and evolution. Building new isights, ideas, approaches and perspectives happens one entry at a time.

If you struggle with where to start, I offer some questions to consider. They are deliberately positive and forward looking. I don’t recommend wallowing in mistakes, recriminations, bitterness and resentment. If you had a crap day, and you need to get it off your chest, then go for it. But the way forward in building new insights is just that: thinking about the way forward.

Questions that you might ask yourself in reflecting on an experience include:

  • What happened? Capture enough of the situation to be meaningful and memorable in the future. What you write here also points to what is, for you, the important and meaningful aspects of the experience.
  • What are you particularly proud of? Thinking about your actions during the experience, what stands out for you? What did you do amazingly well?
  • What approaches would you want to repeat? Note the phrasing: this is not about criticism. You are not beating yourself up here. But if there were approaches that didn’t land quite they way you had hoped, it is entirely reasonable to acknowledge them. Experimenting and evolving from what we have done before is part of the learning process.
  • What might you do differently next time? Take into consideration both the aspects you are proud of and the actions you don’t want to do over again. Identify what they point to as potential new strategies when you find yourself in a similar situation.
  • What would it take to do this? This is where we think about putting new ideas into practice. Preparation is often needed. We might need to practice, or research, or get perspectives from others. Think about what you would need to put your new strategies into action. Define a plan of what to do next.
  • What challenges might still arise? Forewarned is forearmed. Thinking about how our approaches might still not work they way we had hoped is all part of building new approaches, new perspective and new ideas. Think about what might go right, but also consider where you might have holes or gaps. Think about the situations where your new perspectives might not be as appropriate, and what could take its place.

This could be the start of a regular journaling practice for you. What regular might mean will inevitably vary: that could be daily, or weekly. It could be fortnightly. Or monthly. You might simple use the questions above as a way to reflect when something important happens that you want to consider.

Building a reflective practice is a critical part of how we evolve and grow. It is the basis of how we learn, build our skills, develop new perspectives and create new insights. That starts with caring enough to get better. But it immediately leads to writing down what better looks like, and the steps that you might take to get there.

Start writing, one word at a time, and one sentence after the next. See what comes out. Think out loud. Where it takes you will surprise you.

2 Comments to “Thinking Out Loud”

  1. Mark L Cook says:

    Mark: Reading this blog brought me to an “aha” moment. I have been a PMP since 2008 but down another rabbit hole, I have been a soccer referee assessor/coach since 1998. That means I observe referees and provide input based on their performance. This application occurred to me as pertinent when I got to the paragraph beginning with “Commiting to writing takes work.” As I continued to read, the process of assessing referees fell nicely into the rest of your blog. I observe to be able to expound on things done well and point out areas where improvement can take place. In doing this second part I offer ideas to try based on my experience and latest guidance from US Soccer. The remainder of your blog provided me with a logical and pertinent way to organize my thought process to accomplish this. I am going to go back and re-read and begin “writing” down your thoughts with my own “reflection” applied.
    Very nicely done, and thanks.

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Thanks do much for the feedback, Mark. That’s a great insight and analogy to where reflective practice comes in to play not just coaching (broadly) but in the idea of a coach-the-coach scenario.

      I like the emphasis on building growth and improvement: strengths to build on, and improvements to get even better.

      Thank you for sharing! Keep in touch.

      Best regards,
      Mark

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