Signs on the Road

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One of my first jobs as a rookie MBA was with a wonderful company that, even today is considered a role model for systemic and consistent innovation – 3M Company. Best known for their ubiquitous sticky notes, Post-It ™, around whose legend innumerable management tomes have been written.  

But this is not about the Post-It TM Note, but another lesser known 3M product range, which probably have saved more lives on this planet, in their quiet but unassuming way, by just being there, and shining a light back on passers by as they drove full throttle to their destination, and ever so often, in the dark. I’m talking about those unsung silent heroes on our roads, the things we call road signs, or more accurately Reflective Sheeting or Reflective Markers.

The value that these reflective markers deliver is quite simple. They inform and guide us, travelers in haste to get to our destination, about the terrain, forks on the road, the need for us to moderate our haste, or any other parameter that might result in our either not arriving at our destination as intended, or arriving in a shape that we had not intended. Reflective markers save lives. By shining back our light on us. And they need to be heeded.

And that’s where the whole concept of reflective thinking comes in. The need to pause with intention and to physically slow down the stream of thoughts that make up for every living nanosecond of our existence.

Our brains have been programmed, over millennia of evolution and more recently, with the indoctrination of  formal education, to relentlessly engage with our environmental stimuli, to “uncover the pattern” and “solve the problem”, even at times, when there really is no problem to solve.  We have all been trained by our education and years of corporate experience, to process data objectively and logically while driving relentlessly to decisions. Nothing wrong with that – the task of management and leadership at all levels is to take decisions, but very often, in this fast paced world and its increasing VUCA-ness (Volatile-Uncertain-Complex-Ambiguous), the leap from data to effective decisions is derailed, not because of anything else, but because the signs on the road were not heeded. Or perhaps the individual or team had not taken the time or care to install such signs, It is my contention that decision making can be made even more impactful and effective by the deliberate insertion of reflective mental road signs in the thinking and decision making process. Very much like the ones we encounter driving along a dark highway at breakneck speed.


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The question that arises then is - how do we, - the architects of our journeys, as well as the builders of the roads in our minds, and the drivers of our life vehicles, - construct, install and follow the reflective markers on our mental journeys, so that we don’t drive off some metaphorical mental cliff?  How does one build ones reflective muscle? As is true for building any muscle, there are a series of simple but repetitive techniques and practices, that over a period of time, get ingrained as habit, and help build this much valued skill. In my years of work in building corporate strategy and facilitating individuals and teams in their progress to their goals, I have had the opportunity to work with some of the simplest techniques and practices that help develop one’s reflective muscle.

1. The Intentional Pause: Most escalations in meetings or conversations are a result of the ricocheting of thoughts and the sensed need for participants to respond to what has just been said. The intentional pause is almost like a shock absorber, a spongy mattress that absorbs the impact of the cannon ball exchange and allows the friction to drop to the floor. The intentional pause helps to slow down the escalating dynamic and instead of flinging the negative energy back, helps to absorb and deflect it. And allows for the energy to be directed to more productive avenues. From a pure neuro-scientific perspective, intentionally building an intentional pause into our day to day interactions helps to rewire our thoughts from our automatic “fight” or “flight” response resident in our limbic or primordial brain, to a more regulated and considered response from the neo-cortex or modern brain, which is the seat of all logic, reason, and ultimately that part of the brain that is responsible for us being human and not animal. The intentional pause is almost like the “Slow Down” sign we so often when speeding.

2. Reflective Questions: An intentional pause followed by a reflective question is one of the most effective reflective practices in conversations or group situations. Reflective questions prompt thinking on how people feel about the topic. The intent is to deflect energies into a more introspective and self-explanatory mode so that the individual or team slows down and takes a closer look at his or her own intentions and motivations. The reflective question forces a pause. Some examples -  “What makes you say so?”, “How do we feel about this ?” “I sense a lot of energy on this topic–tell me what ‘s going on?”. Reflective questions force participants to check direction, change gear, and look out for signs for what lies up ahead on the road. Much like the signs that point to a fork on the road ahead, or the fact that we need to look out for a traffic lights at a crucial juncture ahead.

While the previous two reflective practices are intended for duo or group situations, the following two work best at the individual level

3. Journaling: For nearly 20 years, Dr. James W. Pennebaker a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has been giving people an assignment: write down your deepest feelings about an emotional upheaval in your life for 15 or 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days. Many of those who followed his simple instructions have found their immune systems strengthened. Others have seen their grades improved. Sometimes entire lives have changed. According to Pennebaker, what happens to us is not nearly as important as the way we interpret what happens to us. Journaling shifts us into the “observer” role and allows us to step back and see our interpretations, giving us the opportunity to reinterpret them in a more helpful way.  Since our thoughts create our feelings, which create our actions, which create our reality, observing our thoughts on a regular basis gives us insight, empowers us and build our capability to be more reflective rather than reactive.      ” … standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.” says Pennebaker. Journaling on a regular basis helps you stand back and reflect, like the signs on the road that say “Diversion Ahead”, are an important reflective practice

4. Meditation: By far one of the most effective reflective practices, but perhaps also one of the hardiest to inculcate as a regular, steady discipline and have ingrained as a habit. There are probably more forms of meditative practice, and many rooted in ancient spiritual traditions, than there are types of road signs, and an attempt to cover any one of them in any measure in this blog would be far from sufficient. Despite all the faddish focus on mindfulness as the new-new thing, in the corporate world, the immense benefits of a regular daily 10-20 minute practice of closing ones eyes, focusing on the space between the nostrils and lips and keeping ones attention on the steady in and out flow of breath, cannot be denied. Meditation in any form helps the mind slow down, and helps one to get into a reflective state as a default mode. But like any good thing it takes months of practice. But perhaps it’s one of the only ways to make the road signs redundant. Because your car now has an inbuilt GPS and an autopilot mode that helps it sense and adjust to the changes in slope, terrain and traffic on the road in real time. Like Google’s driverless car. And like Google’s driverless car, the access of this exquisite technology to common-folk like you and me is still some ways away. But with some work, it can be accessed.

In summary, reflection is a skill that can be learnt. And like most other skills, reflection needs to be learnt as a structured process of thinking, with deliberation and intent. It does not just happen. In fact Dr, Dan Siegel MD, a leading thinker and exponent of Mindfulness in his seminal work the Mindful Brain rightly describes Reflection as the 4th R of learning after Reading, wRiting and aRithmentic. A skill that embeds self-knowledge and empathy in its learners.

So as you press down on the accelerator of your life and work, keep a look out for those guiding reflective road signs. Remember - Reflective markers save lives. By shining our light back on us. Drive safe. :)