The Power of Team Reflection to Strengthen Continuous Improvement Practices

by Rohini McKee, Associate Partner of Strategic Initiatives

Our days are packed with meetings, yet so often what is discussed feels more transactional. What’s the update on this? What are the risks to doing that? When will this be done? And between these meetings, we are answering emails, trying to do our actual work,  plus let’s not forget all of our non-work demands. But what might teamwork look like, and professional growth feels like if we prioritized team-reflection time on what we’ve done together, how we’ve grown as an organization, and where we should spend our time next?

Since 2018, Catalyst:Ed has had an opportunity to help over 50 organizations reflect on their use of continuous improvement practices to improve outcomes, their growth in areas like diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and measurement, and prioritize future capacity-building efforts. Using the Framework for Improvement Teams as the anchor for each discussion, we facilitate a periodic team-based experience where we ask a group of leaders to step back and discuss if/how their improvement team applies these capacities. Together, these teams engage in healthy debates, experience lightbulb moments, celebrate their strengths, and identify areas for growth. They have shared that prioritizing time to reflect as a team helps them envision their team and organization at a greater level of skill development and provides a pathway to build capacity internally or connect with a provider for support. One person even said that she looked forward to this exercise every year!

After all of these conversations, one big takeaway is that every organization takes action differently. Even if teams rated themselves similarly, what they did with this information looked vastly different. They each had their way of deciding which capacity to focus their attention on and how to go about doing so. Some considered creating an internal task force while others sought out a provider. Taking time to reflect as a team and collect all these data gives leaders the ability to understand the big picture more clearly and determine where to go next.  

So, why are this team-reflection exercise and resulting actions different from others we’ve all completed before? Here’s why: 

  1. It’s an opportunity to reflect on if, how, and to what extent equity is at the heart of your work. In every capacity throughout the framework, your team is asked how diverse stakeholders are included in your processes if equity is explicitly called out in protocols and practices, how your team represents the population you serve, and more. Having a group of leaders together for this conversation helps illuminate how equity shows up similarly and differently across teams at the same organization. With this understanding, leaders can identify the types of support each team needs. 
  2. You “choose your own adventure” for growth. When thinking about the needs of your team and your organization, you know best and there’s no right or wrong answer. As we’re leading teams through their reflection, they are constantly trying to compare themselves with others, and often, their perception of others’ strengths. Team-reflection activities can feel like tests; we can get down on ourselves about what we’re struggling with, we gloss over our strengths, and inherently we want to compare ourselves to others. However, our clear tool with detailed look-fors help people stay focused on what “good” can look like for their organization without the emotion or competitiveness of comparing with others. Through our facilitation, we push the teams to focus on their work, their needs, and their next steps. Because we know that each team needs different types of support to grow. 
  3. We probe…a lot. The “score” that someone gives themself for a particular capacity matters, but only a little bit. What we want to know is why. Why do you give yourself that rating? What are you considering when determining your rating? What are you doing, or not doing, that contributes to your decision? What can you do to get better? Probing questions get the conversation and aha moments flowing. People start to feel comfortable showing their vulnerability, they more freely share stories and make provocative statements for their colleagues to react to. Ultimately, this leads to deeper conversations, more honest reflections, and more realistic plans.   
  4. The process and the data emerging from it can result in targeted technical assistance. These data help participants plan their upcoming work, celebrate their accomplishments, learn from missteps, and move forward as a team. Through this process, teams identify areas for capacity-building work and take the next step of working with us to identify a provider to support their needs. 

Because we believe so strongly in the power of team reflection, we have built a tool to allow school improvement teams to engage in this process on their own – the build a Blueprint function on the Learning Lab for School Improvement Teams. This is a custom tool we built that serves as a standalone, independent capacity assessment that allows improvement teams to reflect on their capacity and receive a tailored report for growth without the involvement of Catalyst:Ed. This report is filled with custom recommendations based on your team’s reflection. We provide access to specific resources to strengthen your work, highlight equity considerations, and identify ways a TA provider can help you.  

To get started, we recommend that you bring together a few colleagues, start building your blueprint, and ask one another:

  • How does this capacity show up at our organization?
  • What work are we doing, or have we done, in this area?
  • What more could we do to get better? 

So what’s stopping you? Start building your Blueprint on the Learning Lab for School Improvement Teams.

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