Any learning and development leader will tell you that to grow, you need to stretch: step outside of your comfort zone, apply your skills in a new context, and work through new challenges. Many companies go to great lengths to create stretch experiences as a means to improve retention and development because they give employees the opportunity to tap into their purpose, broaden their perspectives, and uncover insights that help them achieve their personal and professional goals.
But to realize all of those benefits, stretching alone is not enough. To fully translate a stretch experience into meaningful growth and change, reflection is key. As our friends at Realized Worth have pointed out, reflection is a critical factor in turning any out-of-job experience from transactional, to transformational.
Think about the last time you stepped away from daily tasks to do something different – maybe a trip abroad. During the experience, you have all of these great new observations and thoughts – but as soon as you get back to your desk, you jump right back into business as usual and it feels like you never left. Reflection creates a pause between the experience and the return to “business as usual” so that you can integrate what you’ve learned into the way you approach business as usual.
“Through reflection [participants] analyze concepts, evaluate experiences, and form opinions. Critical reflection provides [participants] with the opportunity to examine and question their beliefs, opinions, and values. It involves observation, asking questions, and putting facts, ideas, and experiences together to derive new meaning and new knowledge.”
-Tennessee State University’s “Importance of Reflection in Service-Learning“
The point of a stretch experience isn’t just to take a temporary break from the status quo; it’s to derive new meaning and knowledge from that break to change the status quo for the better moving forward. That’s why reflection is an integral part of all our social good programs, and our methodology has been recognized as a best practice by Harvard Business Review.
Below, we’ll share tips for making reflection an ongoing practice in your life, along with one of our favorite frameworks: Think Back, Think Through, Think Forward.
Building Your Reflection Muscle
Reflection isn’t just something you do at the very end of an experience. In fact, you’ll get even more out of both the experience and your reflections if you do some pre-work up front to set goals. From there, try to carve out some time every day to reflect on what you’re doing and experiencing – in an honest way. Remember, the goal is not to create a highlight reel of wins, but to derive new meaning and knowledge – it’s equally valuable to reflect on the things that didn’t go as planned, where you didn’t show up the way you wanted to. There is so much to learn from both. Writing down the thoughts and insights you’re having – as you’re having them – will help you capture the key details that lead to valuable insights, and that will likely be harder to recall weeks or months later.
The Framework: Think Back, Think Through, Think Forward
Think back, think through, think forward is a helpful model to understand how you’ve changed as a result of an experience, as well as how you want to ladder those changes to your professional and personal life going forward. It’s divided into three parts:
This phase is about connecting with the pre-experience version of you. (Having jotted down notes along the way will make this much easier when the experience is over!) We suggest looking at this along three dimensions: intention, motivation, and foundation. Think of this phase as establishing a baseline to measure growth by comparing who you were going into this experience, and who you are coming out of it.
Here are a few prompts to help you “think back:”
- What was the original purpose of having the experience? Understanding your intention going into the experience will help you evaluate how successful it was.
- What internal motivations pushed me through the experience? Paint a picture of where you were personally, emotionally, and professionally when you started.
- What previous experiences were essential to the experience you just had? This is your “foundation,” and includes prior skills that helped you during the experience, personal attributes that helped you navigate through it, and even skills that were missing.
This phase is all about what happened during the experience. We suggest looking at this along three dimensions: yourself, those around you, and the world at large.
Here are a few prompts to help you “think through:”
- What did you learn about yourself, both personally and professionally? Think about the moments you felt most proud (for insights you can ladder to your future work) as well as the moments you felt least proud (for insights into what you could have done differently, and how you’d like to approach similar situations in the future.) Another way to think about this is as emotional highs and lows – what moments felt best, worse?
- What did you learn about others through this experience? Think about the people you went through the experience with – whether that’s a peer, someone in the community, a social entrepreneur, a new team. What did you learn about them personally or professionally? Another way to approach this is to ask: when did people inspire you (so you can internalize that into your future behavior), and when did people disappoint you (so you can internalize that in a way that you don’t do it to others)?
- What did you learn about the world? Zooming out even further, think about what the experience revealed to you about the world around you, and what you want your role/place in it to be.
In this phase, you’ll bring the learnings from the previous two phases together and connect them with your future self. We recommend using the same three dimensions as in the previous phase: yourself, those around you, and the world.
Here are a few prompts to help you “think forward:”
- What skills and situations do you want more of, and which do you want less of? Think about the kinds of tasks and future situations where you will shine. Also think about the opposite: what skills do you want to leave behind, and what situations do you want to avoid? This is also a good place to document any insights into how you’d like to do things differently in the future based on the past.
- What kind of impact can your experience have on others around you? To answer this question, think about how you can ladder your new learnings once you’re back at work, and how others are likely to react to that. What experiences do they have that relate to the changes you’re going through? What situations have they NOT had that influence how they may be resistant to change? Thinking through this ahead of time will help you frame your suggested changes – for example, more socially responsible procurement within your department – in ways that build empathy, meet people where they are, and are most likely to succeed.
- How will you use this experience to contribute to a better world? This is a great opportunity to revisit your initial goals, make any modifications, and set new ones as a result of what you’ve experienced. What do you want your place in the world to be? What do you want your place in your company to be, and how can you use this experience to get there?
Reflection is ultimately about creating space between having an experience, and integrating what impact that experience has had on you. As simple as it sounds, carving out time for reflection can be the difference between a one-off experience and a truly transformative one that you carry with you into the rest of your career and life.
To help you put this simple 3-phase framework into action for yourself, you can download our Think Back, Think Through, Think Forward reflection template here. Of course, this is just one example, and there are many other reflection frameworks out there – like the Gibbs Reflective Cycle or Driscoll’s Model of Reflective Practice – that you can also try out. Whichever framework you choose, remember: there isn’t a “wrong” way to do it. Your insights are yours, and they are valid – our advice is to approach these exploratory questions honestly and openly, and see what emerges. You might be surprised!
If your company already has stretch social good programs in place, talk to your program lead about incorporating some of these prompts to help others get even more out of the experience – or, have them get in touch with us to launch a custom corporate program for you and your peers. Looking for more opportunities to stretch and grow (with reflection baked into the process)? Join us on the TRANSFORM Support Hub!