Reflection: The Pause That Gives Insight, Part Two

In part one of this article, we introduced two common maladies of teams at the juncture between research, sense-making, and concept: diagram hypnosis and analysis paralysis. And based on our own experience in projects and workshops, we suggested that making time for reflection can be a powerful antidote to these difficulties. 

“Take time to listen to our intuitive mind: that part of us that has been paying attention all along, but which cannot be heard in our usual business pace. …That side of ourselves is great at noticing patterns, but it doesn’t have language. And it is much closer to our values, our beliefs, our sense of the big important stories. We simply need ways to help it connect what it feels to what it sees, and give it a chance to express itself.” 

Four ways, all sharing similar steps

To find new approaches and methods, we’ve looked in places outside corporate design, where people include reflection in their work as a matter of course. We’ve borrowed from the arts, theatre, and writing, as well as wisdom traditions. There is a huge catalog of ways people do this, but we can offer four here that are easy to do in a corporate setting, easy to learn, and wonderfully effective. 

 All four share the same initial steps: 

  1. Set aside uninterrupted time (no colleagues, cell phones or cockatoos) 
  2. Get still (you can read more about getting still here
  3. Consider your situation and ask yourself (or your group) a question. We find questions like these to be at once specific and vague enough to let the good stuff out: “What is true here?” “What is really going on?” “What is possible?”

Then use some means to give expression to what shows up for you, like one of the following.  


Consider your situation and your question. Put pen to paper and write. Think of your hand as a direct conduit between your insides and the paper, bypassing your Big Thinker. There is only one rule: don’t stop writing. Set a timer (ten minutes is good to start with), and don’t allow yourself to stop until the time is up, even if you have to write something silly or nonsensical. It will seem strange at first, but eventually you will get a surprise. You will overhear yourself saying things you didn’t know you knew.

If the first session is unfruitful, give it a rest and go again for another ten minutes. Try picking the most interesting sentence from your first session and use that as the seed of the next. Or try giving yourself a constraint like, “I must write a poem about this question in ten minutes.”


Hold the question in your senses, and put your pencil to paper (we prefer pencils to pens for this). Like free-writing, wire your hand to your sensory giblets and simply allow the lines to shape themselves. Give it time to show up. Once you feel you’ve completed the drawing, you can stop and ask yourself, “What is the wisdom here?” There’s no need to jump to conclusions, no need to “figure it out.” Allow the drawing to speak to you, allow the meaning to simply show up.

Make a model

Prepare for this by getting a variety of materials together. We’ve done it by having everybody empty their pockets onto the table, but it’s better if you gather office supplies, art and craft materials, Legos, etc. We find natural materials can work really well, as they are rich in metaphor: leaves and twigs, stones, feathers, whatever you find.

Let the situation and question fill your attention, then let your hand start finding materials and arranging them. It’s the same process as free-drawing: work with it, feel whether it’s “right,” and keep going until it feels done. Then turn to someone else and report the story of your model. Don’t explain it. Report the meaning you unconsciously assigned to the materials and their placement. Again, this is a chance to overhear yourself saying things you didn’t know you knew.

This is one of our favorite exercises to do in groups, because we can start by having everyone build their own model and report on it. Then we ask the group to build a collective model that represents the entire team’s answer to the question.

Schedule 15 minutes of silence

The last method we’ll recommend doesn’t require any materials. It can be a great antidote to the busy pace of most workplaces, and it’s an easy thing to try. It’s simply this: at key points in your process agree to take 15 minutes to reflect, then report to one another what happened when you did.

The person who is reporting doesn’t give analysis or conclusions, he or she simply says, “Here is what happened when I got quiet and took a walk.” The people who are listening don’t critique, comment, or even build on the ideas. They might take notes, but mostly they remain in the reflective state. Why? Because group reflection is as potent and insightful as individual reflection.

This helps in all sorts of situations. Watch research videos together, then reflect before discussing them. Take reflection breaks during analysis. While preparing important presentations, before developing the next prototype, while working to find the right language for a report, while seeking a solution to a difficult design challenge,… take reflection breaks. 

It’s easy to try

As with most new practices, we suggest starting small. Try it on your own, or try it once with your team as an experiment. If you like it, if you find it valuable, keep playing with it until you find it becomes part of your way of working.
We’ve found this idea to be a tremendously important addition to our practice, and we’ve had a great time helping teams adopt it for themselves. We’d love to hear from you: what did you experience? What worked? What was difficult? What were the results?  

A model built by a design leader at one of our Frontier Retreats, portraying the forces at play in an organization. This led to a useful question: “How might this model be transformed to portray a more desirable situation?”  

Comparing two reflective, intuitive models of the same situation, created by people with different roles on the team. It’s not the models that provide the insight, it’s what people say when they tell the story of their model. 

A group of students in the midst of a ten-minute freewriting session, reflecting on a video we’ve all watched together. The following discussion is much richer, more honest, and productive than it would be had we simply asked the usual question, “So what do you think?” 

For big challenges, when facing real complexity and high stakes, take a longer walk, take regular walks. Maybe in a place far from the fast-paced pressures to be constantly productive. Creative people throughout history have sworn to the value of reflective walks.  

What do I do if I can’t get still?

It can be really challenging to get still. We all have monkey-minds that want to grab our attention and pull it towards the next to-do, the unresolved conflict, the peanut-butter jar. The following exercise is based on an exercise from life coach Martha Beck. Her method borrows from “open focus” brain research. We often use a variation of this exercise when we introduce reflection to groups of people who don’t “get quiet” on a daily basis. At its heart, this exercise helps you move your attention from your verbal mind to your non-verbal mind by overwhelming the verbal mind with sensory information.

  1. Sit in a place where you won’t be interrupted for the next few minutes. Closing your eyes is a helpful way for you to focus.
  2. In your imagination, go to a specific place on earth that you love. Start by taking a deep inhale. What does the air there smell like? See if you can smell it.
  3. Without dropping the scent, add a tactile memory. Feel the sun or wind on your skin, hold an object from the space in your hands and feel it.
  4. Now add a taste. If you were standing there, what might you be eating and can you taste it?
  5. While still holding the scent, tactile memory and taste, add the memory of sound. What are you hearing at this moment?
  6. Finally start to imagine what it looks like there. Where is the light, what is on the horizon? Mentally fill in all the details of the scene.

Holding all these memories creates too much activity for our poor pink brains to continue thinking verbally. As a result, we open ourselves to a more relaxed, open and creative state.

Marc Rettig

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