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What is the value of pausing for reflection in light of a pandemic?

How pausing for reflection can strengthen our individual and collective adaptive capacity.

As individuals and organizations, our underlying capacity for creative adaptation and learning forms a core pillar of our ability to foster smarter response, recovery, and ultimately longer-term resilience and transformation. Sitting within this context, 3×3 launched its ‘Temporality’ series with ‘Pressing Pause’ a prototype workshop to understand what influences our ability to respond strategically under extreme stressor events and explore avenues to strengthen individual and collective creative adaptation. Our next session ‘Fast Forward’ will explore what lies ahead, asking how might we carry forward learnings from this crisis to shape future narratives?

What is the value of pausing for reflection in light of a global pandemic? Might it help us navigate and cope with rapidly changing conditions to respond more strategically under stress? And if that’s the case, what lessons might we be able to carry forward to integrate reflection-based learning into ongoing project management?

Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.

Margaret J Wheatley

COVID-19 has put Margaret J Wheatley’s words to the test as many of us navigate rapidly changing and often ambiguous conditions that surface our broader systemic vulnerabilities and inequities. In the urban development space, the ongoing public health crisis is testing our understanding of ‘resiliency’ and ‘adaptation planning’ as a practice that has previously focused on environmental crises. With the escalation of climate change, it is becoming clear that we will have new types of crises that we will have to learn how to respond and adapt to. If we define resilience as a set of social systems and processes that enable our ability to respond, adapt, and reduce vulnerability to threats, then our individual and organizational capacities for ongoing learning and creative adaptation form a core pillar of our ability to foster smarter response and recovery and longer-term resilience and transformation. Here emerges the importance of adaptive capacity, which we view as an ability to be strengthened or skill to be built that helps us juggle these different tensions that many of us are faced with currently.

Adaptative Capacity — the ability to translate reflection into learning for creative adaptation amidst uncertainty — forms a core pillar of our individual and collective ability to foster resilience and longer-term transformation.

With this lens, 3×3 launched Temporality, a workshop series aimed at exploring the connection between reflection, reimagination, and action as it relates to our individual and collective abilities to navigate ambiguity in service of a more desirable and equitable future. With COVID-19 serving as a shared real-life example of looming uncertainty, the first two workshops focused on reflection as a means of learning from this unprecedented moment, now and over time. A group of development practitioners and designers that help shape the public response were invited to reflect wearing two hats — as individuals living through the experience, and also as practitioners. Through a set of guided probes, the group individually and jointly mapped their shifting states of awareness and behavioral adaptations to the crisis. The intent was to assess the proactivity of our actions and identify early response signals or feedback loops that might help us learn collectively and understand approaches to fostering resilience looking ahead.

The first workshop and method, Pressing Pause, focused on the ‘Identifying’ stage in the adaptation cycle.

As individuals, we move through different stages emotionally, from coping to adaption, from denial to acceptance. During the first workshop, participants were invited to remember and reflect upon early moments of the pandemic as a way of reflection on our shifting states of emotions, awareness, and actions. By directing our attention to these early behavioral adaptations, we hoped to identify moments of shifting awareness — from obliviousness to action — and unveil patterns of needs helping us to improve our ability to respond to crises in tactical ways. We learned that during the early days of the pandemic:

  • Our perceptions of risk were influenced by our proximity and connection to the event, our information sources, and our relationship with the future;
  • Our actions were driven by a mix of confrontations with critical decisions, our surrounding cultural and institutional environments, and observed behaviors within our communities and networks;
  • Many felt a lack of agency that prevented us from acting proactively, whether this was a result of our organization’s leadership, or insufficient resources or information.

Journeying together through early moments of the crisis.

Building on these initial learnings, our second workshop aimed to narrow further in on the conditions influencing our early responses to unexpected changes in circumstancs. In particular, we were interested in understanding how our perception of risk — which may vary at different stages of a crisis — influences our early decisions and actions. Furthermore, by putting our early responses in context with our perception of risk (influenced by proximity and scale), we aimed to test the method’s potential for individuals and groups to receive and process early signals of emerging events and change in order to understand their potential impact, navigate ambiguity, and make more informed and proactive decisions.

The evolution of a collective mapping exercise via Zoom illustrates changing perceptions of risk over the course of the crisis, layered over the actual case count in the United States.

Several themes emerged from our discussions during these first two workshops providing us with insights into what influences our responses to unexpected change of circumstances. For example:

  • Trusted Voices: When reflecting upon the early stages of the pandemic, participants noted difficulties navigating and assessing information sources as it relates to trustworthiness and reliability which posed challenges to comprehend the scale of the pandemic and related risks to their personal and professional lives. Among others, participants cited the following sources of information: news channels, their company’s information channels, social media, family, neighbors, health authorities, governments, and co-workers.
  • Collective Narrative: “The collective narrative had a very powerful impact on my mind,” a participant recalled. How others acted, particularly in our immediate surroundings and close relationships, seemed to have mattered greatly to our own perception and responses. Stigma associated with certain actions appears to have been a major influencer. Our environment, both personal and professional, also appeared to have greatly determined our perceived range of options.
  • Risk Perception: Over the course of just a few months, risk perception shifted significantly. From concern of personally catching the disease, to passing it on, to concern about others (e.g. parents, grandparents, elderly and disadvantaged populations) to the overall collateral impact of the crisis from health and wellbeing to the future of the economy.
  • A Tabula Rasa Moment: Especially during our second session we noticed a shift of perceptions and outlook, and a need for contemplation of what’s next. The notion of the crisis as a reset button, raises the question of narratives. What values do we want our future societies to be shaped by? What are our shared long-term goals and potential pathways moving forward? What actions might we take to get there, especially in the context of the public response by local, state, and national government and health authorities?

Expanding on the above point, we have also noticed a shift of attention from the “here and now” to “what’s next”. Participants were keen on thinking more carefully about what lies ahead, new narratives waiting to be shaped, and how to move forward. With this in mind, we are on to developing the next phase of this series continuing our inquiry into sense-making of patterns of thoughts, and feelings, and behavioral adaptations in the light of the crisis that might help us better understand approaches to fostering transformation. With this second method — introduced as a new, forthcoming workshop — we aim to emphasize what lies ahead of us, exploring the following questions:

  • How might we carry forward learnings from this crisis to shape future narratives?
  • How do we collectively reflect process-wise and moving forward?
  • What is the diverse next-generation network that can push our systemic realities?
  • How can we normalize reflection so it happens earlier and more often?

Adaptation amidst COVID-19

While this next sense-making workshop will again draw on our collective experience living through the COVID-19 pandemic, ultimately, our hope is that this will lead to the development of a robust practical tool for teams to self-facilitate structured conversations and reflections about potential risks. Doing so, we recognize as an opportunity to:

  • Anticipate emerging events of significance, including interpreting risk and potential impact through collective sensemaking of signals of change;
  • Increase a team’s adaptive capacity by equipping them with the ability to recognize risk earlier and better assess knowledge gaps to make informed, proactive decisions in the face of uncertainty;
  • De-risk project planning, management, and implementation by increasing process agility through rapid information sharing;
  • Help foster a team culture of trust, learning, and collective efficacy.

As such, this workshop might help us identify qualitative signals, or indicators and data streams, that complement traditional quantitative data used by teams for decision-making. To formalize and action the learnings outlined herein, we are developing a self-guided reflection tool to support teams in assessing the state of their collective adaptability in the light of uncertainty which we look forward to sharing at a later stage.

Interested in similar things or being kept in the loop? We would like to hear from you. Contact us at info@3×3.co