Reflection Breaks

Martin Burns
Find Me
Martin Burns
Find Me

Latest posts by Martin Burns (see all)

From our first year, the SAFe Leadership Retreat has always included a longish break in the afternoon. We’ve always encouraged attendees to do what feels right in that time, whether it’s taking part in the leisure activities provided by our venue, going off in groups, or taking individual time out.

From the feedback we’ve received in Retreat retros and beyond, it’s clear that we haven’t done a great job of communicating the purpose during the events. So, here’s our thinking.

Designing for Neurodiversity

Many of us are awesome at talking. Some of us actually fundamentally process information that way. And so much of the formal sessions are structured for this: the direct exchange and discussion in a highly constrained time box. Speed dating for ideas. And this is powerful – I’ve long held that the most important part of any conference is in the connections between talks. That’s when the actual conferring takes place, while the formal sessions are mostly there to make it easy to persuade someone to fund us to attend.

But not everyone is like this. Some of us prefer to talk after thinking. After reflection. The information processing is internal and invisible. In an event built only on talking, the creativity afforded by introverts is lost.

Moreover, for introverts, this is tiring. If you have to be on all the time in a conference, it feels less like a Retreat and more like an all-out sensory assault. I personally find a standard conference to be incredibly hard work, and that’s with the conferring constrained to breaks! As Lucy will testify: I come home from a 3 day conference and it takes me another 2 to recover.

So, to support the neurodiversity of our attendees, we have built in a long break each day where introverts can have quiet and space to recharge and reflect, before re-engaging with the extroverts.

More on this

Unforced Conversations

Related but distinct is the wish to support less pressured conversations. If the time boxed Open Space sessions are speed dating for ideas, being able to continue a conversation with one or more of your fellows at a more considered pace is moving towards a real relationship.

Taking part in an activity together – even if it’s just sitting drinking tea – allows a conversation to happen at its own pace. Your focus is not the conversation, so it drifts in and out of the gaps and evolves. You can deeply listen to what someone is saying without the constant pressure of in 5 seconds, I’m going to have to come back with something that sounds smart. Instead, you can listen. And think. And do the activity. Without the pressure of talking until you are ready. When you’re doing something else, silence is OK.

Incubation of Ideas

There’s an early but very relevant model of creativity: the Wallas model, comprising 5 stages:

1. Preparation
Gather as much information as possible about the problem space
2. Incubation
Step away from directly thinking about the problem space and let our subconscious make connections
3. Intimation
Have an intuitive feeling that we are about to find a solution
4. Illumination
The solution becomes obvious to us
5. Verification
Check this is the right solution by testing it (if only against others’ opinions)

In a hot-house environment, we’re lucky if we just jump from step 1 to step 3. Too often in any problemsolving process in modern workplaces, we come with pre-packed solutions, looking for the problem to hang it on, and we enter the process at step 5, selling our solutions to each other.

Even error-proofing that leap, it’s true that the most underserved yet most interesting step is that of incubation. When we’re under pressure for results, Incubation looks like we’re not doing anything.

The Retreat is supposed to be a creative process, bringing new and underserved contexts and needs from a community of leading practitioners to generate new ideas that might help our wider community.

Valuing outcome over output, it’s necessary to put in a forcing function to counteract our natural tendency for busy-ness and bias us towards effectiveness.

There are many things you can do to support incubation, that put you in a different frame of mind, distracting your conscious brain to allow your sub-conscious work for a while. Changing your environment. Listening to or playing music. Going from somewhere noisy to somewhere quiet. Doing a physical activity – especially a focused or repetitive one like walking or Golf. Building Lego. Drawing.

Further reading