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Sharing and reflection are the key to improvement


Towards the back end of last year I wrote about the importance of time.  The post was primarily discussing the time requirements of collaboration and how it can be valuable to set aside time for doing things outside of your normal job remit.  There are obviously numerous examples of this in action, generally under the broad guise of 20% time style initiatives.

That shouldn’t be the only time that time is offered as a reward however, as a new paper only too successfully illustrates.  The paper explores the tangible benefits we can attribute to taking some time out from our work to reflect both on what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it.

“Now more than ever we seem to be living lives where we’re busy and overworked, and our research shows that if we’d take some time out for reflection, we might be better off,” says Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino , who co-wrote the paper with Gary Pisano, the Harry E. Figgie Professor of Business Administration at HBS; Giada Di Stefano, an assistant professor at HEC Paris; and Bradley Staats, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

The research focused on the dual-process theory of thought.  This suggests that people think and learn using different types of processes.  One type is heuristic based and revolves around learning by doing.  The second type is more reflective and is often involved with decision making.

The hypothesis of the research was that the first type (ie learning by doing) would be much more effective if it was joined by the reflective and thoughtful type.  To test this hypothesis, participants in the study were asked to complete a series of brain teasers.

Upon completion of the task, they were divided into three groups that centred on control, reflection and sharing.  The control group were the heuristic learners, who simply repeated the game again in the hope that practice would make perfect.

The reflection group, by contrast, were given a few minutes on their own to think about the task and compile notes on their strategy for completing it, before they too were asked to have another go.

The final, sharing, group, received the same instructions as the reflection group, but were also told that their notes would be shared with future participants.

So, which group performed best on the subsequent test?  It emerged that the 2nd and 3rd groups (reflect and share) performed 18% better on the second test than the control group (the heuristics).  Interestingly however, there was no real difference between the two leading groups.

“In this case sharing on top of reflection doesn’t seem to have a beneficial effect,” Gino says. “But my sense was that if the sharing involved participants actually talking to each other, an effect might exist.”

So, the researchers set about testing this.  They asked a fresh set of participants to complete the same task as in the first experiment, but with two core differences.  Firstly, none of the participants were paid according to their performance, they were instead paid a flat fee for participation.  Secondly, participants were asked to share how capable, competent and able they felt before completing the second round of games.

Just as with the first experiment, the sharing and reflection groups did better than the control group, even with the differences in extrinsic motivation involved.

“When we stop, reflect, and think about learning, we feel a greater sense of self-efficacy,” Gino says. “We’re more motivated and we perform better afterward.”

A final experiment then brought all of this into the real world.  Researchers teamed up with Indian company Wipro to conduct an experiment in their call centre operation.  The team divided a group of employees undergoing training for a particular client into the three main groups, before each then undertook the training.

The reflection group however were given two 15 minute blocks throughout the training to write down some reflections on what they’d learned that day.  The sharing group also did this, but spent an extra five minutes talking about this with a fellow trainee.

Over the one month training period, the participants in the reflection and sharing groups performed much better than those in the control group, with the reflection group outperforming them by 22.8% and the sharing group doing so by 25%.

Another interesting thing to note is that the control group spent those extra 15 minutes of reflection time working, so over the course of the training period had put in a decent chunk of extra time, yet still performed significantly worse.

“I don’t see a lot of organizations that actually encourage employees to reflect—or give them time to do it,” Gino says. “When we fall behind even though we’re working hard, our response is often just to work harder. But in terms of working smarter, our research suggests that we should take time for reflection.”

Food for thought the next time you come across a manager demanding more time on the job.

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