INTENTIONAL MUSEUM BLOG

Reflection 22: On Reflection

25th Anniversary ButterflyAs Randi has shared in some of her posts, we at RK&A value the concept and four actions associated with Intentional Practice—Plan, Align, Evaluate, and Reflect. A few weeks ago, Randi wrote about Align, which she noted is the most complex. Today I write about Reflect, which is probably the most alluring of the four actions. At the same time, it is also the most easily dismissed—the one swept aside as a luxury. In workshops we facilitate, we usually show museum staff the Cycle of Intentional practice and ask them what percentage of time they spend on each of the fours actions. Inevitably, reflection falls short, usually garnering between 5 and 10 percent. Staff tell us this isn’t for a lack of desire or need; they wish they had more time for reflection. But as is so common in our modern world, we tend to get stuck in the continual act of “doing.” Take, for example, how difficult it has been for me to sit down and write this blog post…. Certainly I am not immune.

I love the literal manifestation of reflection, which is when light strikes a surface and bounces around in unusual ways, making us see something we didn’t see before. For me, the allure of reflection in its literal form is not that different from what happens when we talk about reflection in evaluation. When it comes to evaluation, reflection leads to insights, ah-ha moments, and new ways of seeing, thinking, and knowing. This happens when I invariably ask one of my favorite question, “What does it mean?” and even when reflection is very difficult—for instance—when I ask, “What does failure mean?” the pay-off is usually worth the pain.

Billboards at Night
Billboards at Night (Detroit), Knud Lonberg-Holm, 1942

Despite its allure, we can’t avoid the fact that reflection is easily dismissed, postponed, and overlooked. Why is this? The answer may lie partly in how hard and sometimes downright painful it is to reflect. At times it is too difficult to consider those important questions; it feels easier to ignore them and continue “doing.” In the same way, reflection in its literal form can sometimes be painful, such as the way light reflecting off the hood of a car is blinding or when light bouncing around becomes disorienting. But I don’t think discomfort is the barrier—from my experience, it seems the demands (both internal and external) to produce thwart our intentions of taking the time to reflect.

In our work with evaluation, reflection is critical. Without taking the time to reflect on the meaning of data, evaluation results fall flat and hollow. As evaluators it is our duty and privilege to ask and try to answer hard questions about what data means, what it tells us. And we do that. But even though we possess a valuable outsider perspective and can offer significant insights about evaluation findings, the insider perspective is equally important. And, our work is at its best when reflection happens collaboratively between the client and us.

So, we try as often as we can to facilitate a Reflection Workshop at the end of a project. In a Reflection Workshop we meet with staff from across the museum to collaboratively explore the question, What have we learned? from the evaluation. We don’t simply present findings; rather, we pose questions and facilitate discussion to help staff explore the meaning of the evaluation findings. And, we don’t shy away from negative findings; rather, we use those as opportunities for understanding and growth. The purpose of the workshops is to come to some conclusions about ways to improve the effectiveness of a program. But more than anything, the purpose is to simply take the time to ask challenging questions and think deeply.

3 Responses
  1. Beautifully stated, Emily. It takes strong voices (at the top, from immediate bosses, among colleagues) to change the producer (do-do-do, busy = effective) culture. Too many ‘leaders’ want only a result. Tell me what we’re doing, not why. Nothing says “I don’t want to change” more than an ingrained institutional impatience and go-go mentality. Staffers need permission and opportunities, backed up with reinforcement. Otherwise, it’s all risk and no, eh? Safe beats scary every time. No matter what any of us outside consultants say… Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t continue trying.

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