The power of reflective practice - The systems thinking and training blog - Bryan Hopkins

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The power of reflective practice

Published by in Reflections ·
When I first started studying systems thinking in a more rigorous way I started coming across this word which was quite new to me: reification. It refers to the process of making something real, and in the context of systems thinking is used as something of a warning: avoid reification, avoid imagining that the world out there is a fixed, solid object that has a specific meaning.

Like when you buy a new car and notice that a lot of other people have bought exactly the same model, once you have got your head around the idea of reification you see it everywhere. I realised that before I started to build systems thinking into my working practice, that my working practice had become reified, that the way I looked at issues in my consultancy practice was always the same and this led to me always trying to apply the same solutions. Realising that my world was actually constructed in my own head and did not have its own independent reality was quite scary but also liberating: it suddenly became okay to look at things differently and try different ideas.

The other day I was dipping into a book by Hannah Arendt, the American social theorist, called "The Human Condition". I've had it on my bookshelf for several years and always found it too dense to get into as a single read, but found that she talks at some length about reification. She suggests that part of the human condition is to make things, to work, and that we do this to provide is with some reassurance about stability in the face of what seems to be constant uncertainty. So it is not surprising that we almost instinctively try to imagine that things around us are solid and unchanging.

When we reify our working practice it makes it very difficult for us to reflect on what we are doing when we do what we do. There are some professions where reflective practice is a requirement, for example medicine, but for most people it probably seems like some esoteric Eastern practice carried out by people who are more alternative than us, but in fact it forms an essential part of informal learning. If the daily pressures of 'getting things done' ease up for a moment, we can perhaps find an opportunity to pause and think about if we are doing these things the right way, or if we should be doing them at all. Maybe we can even take the time to discuss these dilemmas with some colleagues, and in this way potentially multiply the powerful effect of reflection.

It may be that one of the potentially most powerful ways of improving individual and organisational performance would be for us to institutionalise the process of reflective practice, rather than keeping our heads down, shoulders to the wheel, noses to the grindstone just in order to do what we have always done in the way that we have always done it. Which might not be the best way.

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