Organisational reflexivity – a better future for businesses, employees and customers alike? 

It is the assumption of this article that contemporary businesses and organisations seek to understand areas of opportunity for learning, improvement, change or innovation in a particular area or context, aligned to the delivery of particular objectives and measures of success, for example, customer and revenue outcomes. 

Modern business leaders and organisations often encourage and support the participation in reflective practices for teams and individuals. These practices are often embedded within these organisations across areas such as technology delivery settings but might also be implemented in areas of production, customer service and business delivery. 

While many organisations have introduced reflective practices in areas such as technology, product or service delivery, in order to help guide people and teams and improve delivery efficiency, organisation scale reflection and reflexivity practices to inform change and adaptive business and operational strategies are less common. Large scale change is more often instituted in elongated change programs influenced by executive shifts at C-level and these shifts affect anything from brand to business strategy, organisation or operating models. 

While large organisational change and transformation programs and greater projected change impact might warrant careful staged planning, these change outcomes may be rigid and less adaptive as a result despite the intent of the strategic design. The impact of such programs might include risk such as talent attrition, lowered employee engagement and diminished control of individuals and teams over their own destinies as well as those of the customer. 

Additionally it is known that transformation efforts fail for a variety of reasons such as lack of vision, lack of urgency, lack of clear prioritisation. These success factors may also be affected due to operating model structures, cultures and scale of the organisation. 

What is reflective practice and how does it help? 

Reflective practice has been applied to business approaches in multiple ways. Reflection helps individuals and teams, not only look backward and reflect, but recall those experiences and learn from them. These lessons, reflected upon by individuals and groups, assist these people in such areas as prioritisation, next stage goal setting and decision making.  

Ceremonies and frameworks involving reflection have been widely adopted in agile product delivery or company strategy reviews. These ceremonies and frameworks might include a range of activities incorporating reflective practice, such as agile retrospectives, lean coffees, lunch and learns, dojos, post-mortems, causal risk or impact analysis, generative ideation, individual professional development and performance reviews, company financial performance reporting. 

Certainly the framing of time and effort in increments such as iterations and sprints in agile ways of working assists participants working with these approaches to include regular ceremonies incorporating reflective practice via short cycles of time. Another, significant, area of review is the understanding of tacit and explicit data and the review of for example stakeholder, business or customer insights in such reviews. There may be additional or other versions of such reflective practices used or incorporated in other ways across the organisation. 

Team, group or 1:1 meetings provide opportunities for reflection with colleagues. People within an organisation may or may not incorporate their own personal reflective practices to help them achieve better learning in their day to day work. Training and learning might be embedded in the organisational culture, encouraging employees to embed targeted learning in their work practices in addition to learning by doing, on the job. 

Why is reflexivity important for organisations?

Reflexive practice is defined as the examination of reasons for acting. Reflexivity in addition to reflection, challenges beliefs, biases and the status quo as the organisation and its leadership might see it. Sometimes, in addition to incentivisation structures, power dynamics and personal motivating factors, leaders may not realise the impact of their actions or the generation of intent for these actions without regular reflexivity. In horizontally organised cultures the practice of reflexivity can be facilitated by these leaders to engender better outcomes for their teams and operations. 

Whilst many organisations organise decision making against data, the use of reflexive practice creates the opportunity to reflect on this data in light of the organisation’s general whole of business and customer objectives, including change orientation and planning. This might support better decision hygiene in the actions, assumptions and motivations of the employee. Similarly, there is an opportunity for broader organisational reflection outside of the production of business or customer outcomes via the design of resources, consumable products or services, or systems.

The introduction of regular reflective practice in addition to the use of reflexivity techniques to assist systemic decisions and relational understanding of internal cultures could assist in understanding the readiness of not only the market but the organisation for change. The use of reflexivity in addition to the use of reflection might have a more powerful impact on not only an organisation’s ‘whole self’ understanding and knowledge but the cultures and tribes within the organisation. 

How do these approaches help to understand the current state and true north of an organisation?

Research in the area of organisational culture indicates that tribalism within organisations is a natural occurrence. The relational impact of these tribal entities on a ‘one-culture’ or single corporate value system can be significant, given what might be true for the organisation within one tribe or micro-culture may be similar, different, or completely untrue for another tribe. Change adoption and readiness may be accepted in different ways by these tribes and similarly these tribes might see themselves differently. 

Leaders and leadership styles interacting with these organisational micro cultures also add to the mix. For example, while it may be possible to embed a single tribe culture, operating model and values system in a startup of a certain scale, a scale up organisation may experience the phenomena of emergent multiple tribes or micro-cultures occurring within the macro organisation. This tribalism may impact on many factors from fly-wheel to factory floor, to employee engagement and retention. 

Without organisational reflexivity in addition to reflection, these organisational tribes and micro-cultures may create wonderful growth opportunities but also growing pains. Additionally change and transformation intent may be thwarted without adequate reflexivity within the organisation to anticipate the impact of large scale change on both employees and customers. 

The introduction of reflexivity across organisations and most particularly in leadership conversations and strategic decision making may help c-suite participants become not only increasingly self-aware of their intent to act, but organisation level actions to be more intent driven and value orientated. Not only this but the more closely integrated these reflexivity conversations become with reflection and adaptive, nimble cycle times and practices, the more open and opportune leaders’ and employees’ cognitive capacity might be to learn and adapt with considered thought and confidence into value driven purpose, mission and vision articulation for their people to engage and work with for long term gain.

In conclusion, the  adoption of reflective practices incorporating reflexivity is not only important for decision hygiene but an organisation’s articulation of self-knowledge, organisational world-views and beliefs. This awareness of true  intent in organisations can create meaningful impact for not only the organisation, the people it serves but those who serve the org. This also creates space for interventions, in the form of change and organisational transformation.  The use of reflexivity in the  design of businesses, incorporating business models, innovation, operating models and structures, process improvement, values systems and employee engagement, contributes to the success of the organisation’s efforts to create impact and value over time and meaningful contributions for its leaders and employees combined.