Reflection-in-action+ is a teaching approach perfect for Phase 1 industries+, where the rules have not yet been written. It has two key aspects: learning by doing and teaching students to delight in unexpected insights.

It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential and has little or no significant influence on behavior. I realize increasingly that I am only interested in learnings which significantly influence behavior … [and] the only learning which influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning … truth that has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience. [This] cannot be directly communicated to another. Carl Rogers (1952). As cited in Schön, D. A. (1990). Educating the reflective practitioner


You can’t instruct others when the rules have not been written. Ours are Phase 1 industries+, staffed by individuals not overly beholden to the prejudices of today’s industries and practices. These are individuals who simply ignore accepted knowledge and make their own.
Tonic, Lower East Side, NYC, 2005
Tonic was a live music venue which opened in 1998 and closed in 2007. It was self-described as supporting "avant-garde, creative and experimental music."

Knowing is not the same as doing. Knowing is analytic; doing is artistic. We’re industrial R&D, which is doing. You can’t instruct our researchers with books, lectures or online tests. Case studies, an approximation, are often instructionally hijacked to teach knowing and not doing. We must teach students how to do.

We rely on mentor-ship. Humble mentor-ship. We perhaps have heuristics or shared technical skills but the rules are not written. Our mentor is a learning mentor, going deeper into their own understanding of the case-at-hand while learning how to best help others go deeper in their understanding. Mentor and mentee jointly explore the ways to better exploit the raw materials at hand, given the constraints imposed by their physical properties. Our mentor revels in opening up new, unexplored dimensions in the minds of his or her mentees.

We have frames of reference+ , ways of looking at problems through the lens of experience. Sometimes they help. Sometimes they get in the way. Our mentor has a vast repertoire of frames, and knows circumstances in which they have been used successfully in the past. But the mentor also knows all circumstances are unique. The mentee has a difficult time picking up this subtle but important distinction, and will be quick to adopt the mentor’s frames of reference as an epiphany – as a new rulebook. We use frames of reference, but only as a means to ask deeper questions and not as crutches.1

Frames of Reference

Figure 1. Frames of Reference. There are dozens of frames or viewpoints into which we reach to inform the design of our funding agency. Lot’s of academic work has come before us which we leverage as best we can. Individuals new to the design process will limit themselves to very few frames, perhaps mixed with some cheap heuristics. We coach novices using mentors with a vast repertoire of frames, but not as formulas, rather as a disposable ways of stress testing new and innovative designs. They're disposable in that the frame may or may not be found to apply.

Illustrative Case Study

Our case study asks how to best structure agency finances in light of the irresistible urge by agency officials to ‘manage earnings’. Earnings management refers to accounting sleight-o’-hands used to achieve financial results sought by the officials, for example booking accounting reserves to smooth out earnings quarter-to-quarter. Earnings management can be good, for example, if it keeps loan sharks from hauling you into court. It can be bad, for example, in management’s reversing of ‘accounting reserves’ to maximize this year’s bonus, despite harm done to the agency. There is no right answer, and there are many frames of reference with which we can analyze this case. We entitle the case: How do we structure our finances, with the intention of keeping the good and minimizing the bad of ‘earnings management’?

The ‘technician’ will pull out the playbook: problem definition, analysis, solution alternatives, ranking, and selection. This approach, of course, comes up with a technical answer, one that may seem innovative to the technician simply because they hadn’t thought of it when the case started.2

  • Keep management from realizing any personal gains from manipulation of accounting results
  • Develop a measure of agency harm from earnings management
  • Don’t worry about earnings management, and focus instead on competency

The technician jumps to a best answer as filtered through a very narrow set of personal frames, without even stopping to consider there may not be a best answer. Instead we make an artist out of the technician.

The mentor acknowledges the novice’s tendency to reach into their accumulated toolbox of skills and techniques, their dependency on these accumulated tools. Mentees will feel vulnerable, threatened, angry, and despondent when we take away these tools. We need them to step back. To view the question afresh. Paint me a picture. Draw me the landscape. What do you see? What do you feel? Think like a kid.

Yes that is a way of dealing with the issue, but what about the manager? How does that affect his or her freedom to come up with artistic responses to new challenges that continually arise? That way opens up freedoms for the manager, but how will the investors see it? They expect at least a patina of probity in the pursuit of self-interest by agency managers.

We learn in practice. The student (the technician) constructs a financial structure satisfying their own frames of reference, at great effort. The mentor applauds the effort, and then asks questions using frames not previously considered by the student. Perhaps, too, the mentor recommends changes to the structure and rationale for the changes. We pull together the design and then we step back and see what the design says ‘to us’, its back talk. Sometimes it feels wrong, and both student and mentor are at a loss of words to say just why. They experiment together to resolve the discomfort. As a team they explore together for the best answer, the student’s creation as reflected in the approval of the mentor.

We teach the student to learn on their own. The lesson is not found in the case study, rather getting the student to discard preconceptions, to build, to reflect on the building, to expand their frames of reference, to string them together, then to discard and rebuild. Perhaps many iterations. It’s top-down and bottom-up. Students frame an end-state in their minds that they would like to see. They build bottom-up toward this end-state. But in building they re-frame the end-state based on the constraints of the raw materials, which in turn causes them to discard prior constructions. It’s from the building, destruction and rebuilding that new artistry emerges. You must first build (i.e., take action). The act of destruction of a carefully constructed edifice is crucial to the emergence of artistry. And, the student learns to continuously seek out and treasure new frames of reference as new ways to test the structural integrity of their creations: past, present and future.3

The Compulsories+

This approach to learning is called reflection-in-action. It allows for great improvements in effectiveness for unpredictable R&D+. Effectiveness comes from our researchers and effective researchers are a result of their learning to learn.

We construct an edifice to the best of our ability, throwing in all our accumulated knowledge, and we reflect on it. We then willingly tear it down if necessary and start over based on how the edifice talks back to us. This is at the heart of our call for core competencies. We have mentors, Stage 2 researchers, working with mentees, Stage 1 researchers+, in an effort to find breakthrough approaches to our research. Stage 2 researchers may have more questions, but by far they do not have all the answers. Their coaching of Stage 1 researchers is fully in the spirit of both teacher and student learning from their interaction, with the Stage 2 researcher shouldering the double burden of learning how to best move Stage 1 researchers into learning how to learn.

Stage 1 researchers must submit themselves to feelings of vulnerability, fumbling, and incompetence. These are individuals who have spent decades building up their research repertoire. We ask them to discard (temporarily) everything they’ve learned. Their learnings-to-date come from books, which are the epitome of frozen knowledge. We seek to go beyond, but not with directions listed in the books. We seek new directions not even hinted at in our learnings.

Stage 1 researchers must learn how to learn. We focus on the psychology of the researcher. What is it in their personal life that gets in the way of them becoming great? What is it we can do to rekindle their child-like fascination with the research? Reflection-in-action takes two: the mentor and the mentee. We can’t have mentees mentally checked out due to preoccupations at home or intentions to rest on faded laurels. We want mentees to be fully engaged, to put in the effort to build their structures, imperfect though they may be, so we can tear them down in a process of creative destruction to get to the best answer.


We will be running a funding agency+ that has very little in common with anything that has come before. It’s a reflection of the challenges we face in exploiting unpredictable R&D. We don’t know the right way forward, so we build, test, destroy and rebuild all our funding approaches. We need investors who have been conditioned over the decades to see investing as a set of rules, to abandon those rules. They become the mentees working under our funding agency-sponsored mentors. They learn to appreciate the genius of a rules-light approach to investing in unpredictable R&D, which itself is quite devoid of rules.

We fund investor education. This too is reflection-in-action. We need investors to learn how to learn more about our agency, its approaches to funding, and its rationales. For example, investors will default to diversification thinking. We get them to work through the design of funding structures for investments that are radically unpredictable: an unpredictability that can’t be fixed through diversification. We do this together, as mentor and mentee. Their belief in our approach will greatly strengthen their love of our institution. And who knows, someone may uncover a better way.4


In April 2001 I was scheduled to present at a senior leadership conference in NYC. The evening before the presentation I was left to my own devices to find dinner and entertainment. On the drive into NYC I overheard a radio interview with a guitarist named Derek Bailey. He would be presenting that evening at the music club Tonic on the Lower East side.5 Bailey’s approach to music was improvisational. It involved recruiting very talented artists (NY Symphony-caliber) and turning them loose en masse on stage. There was no music score and no practice beforehand. Since I was already a fan of Free Jazz, listening to the likes of Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, etc., I could not pass up this opportunity.

Tonic upstairs was essentially a small decrepit theater turned into a stage. A thriving underground trance music scene took place in the basement. In the back of the theater was a small bar, obviously added after the fact. Next-door was an anarchist bookstore. Here was everything needed for the alternative music ambiance promoted by the club. The small stage was framed with well-worn dark red velvet curtains like you would have seen in an old movie theater. The smell was dank and musty. There were a few tables and chairs, but for the most part the audience was standing.

The performers included Derek Bailey (guitar), Rhondri Davies (Harp), Jennifer Choi (violin), Simon Fell (double bass), and Joey Baron (drums/percussion). Bailey would start a piece and the others would join in as the mood struck. Each artist was adept at quickly anticipating the moves of the others, and knew when to contribute, when to take over and when to fade into the background. In less than a minute after Bailey’s opening lead, he would be overtaken. The music took twists and turns, as each artist’s contribution would come to the foreground and take the lead. As an added twist the instruments were played in an atypical fashion. The harp was alternately banged with a tambourine, wooden sticks and iron rods. The double bass was played with glass rods, sticks and other stringed and non-stringed items. The percussionist used all manner of sticks and rods, and I believe even a musical saw, to create a unique beat. Bailey would bang away on the frets of his guitar with metal and other objects. It was pure cacophony.

At the end of the performance only I and a young man standing next to me gave an enthusiastic applause. The rest of the audience gave a polite, confused applause. Perhaps only two of us really understood what was going on. It was not about the music. Here were concertmasters, used to playing at the Lincoln Center and other prestigious haunts, and they were just having a hoot. If we had handed the sticks and tambourines and instruments to kindergarten kids they wouldn’t have had more fun. We had witnessed the best of the best artists enjoying themselves in a performance that was not recorded and would never again be witnessed.

Success in R&D is about building a team of technical masters and having them all work together on a unique creation. The above analogy breaks down when you consider that only two audience members applauded enthusiastically at the end of the concert. If you allow creativity free reign, you can end up with a cacophony. We seek world-class performers creating new, innovative music that sells. It takes a delicate guiding hand to achieve this balance of creativity and commercial success. Can you imagine how much more difficult this can be when the paying audience (investors) think they’re smarter than you?

Reflection-in-action. We take very talented individuals and bring them together to perform a work of improvisation. There are no rules. We have not practiced. Our goal is to create a new industrial model. One never before seen. From the outside we look messy, disorganized, unruly, undisciplined. But inside, where our inner child resides, we’re having a ball. And to keep having this feeling we know we must meet the expectations of our investors.

Editor's Picks for September, 2011

  • 1. Want to see how to spend U.S. $5 million in taxpayer dollars to do this completely backwards? See here.
  • 2. Of course, management consultants do this in groups, leveraging their ‘superior facilitation capabilities’, and relying on an unspoken and oft-disproven belief in the power of group-think.”We may not come up with the best answer, but we’ll come up with one that most participants can support (and therefore an answer safest for your career).”
  • 3. For example, many investors do not appreciate the subtlety with which management can manipulate agency politics so as to do whatever they want.
  • 4. Also, from a strictly selfish viewpoint, an educational approach using reflection in action+ cannot be easily copied by funding agency competition.
  • 5. See: Tonic - Wikipedia and Tonic - Flickr (for pictures of the venue with various performers).
Further Reading
Reba Tull
Joined: 03/30/2011
Not applicable for Joe-investor

I can see the applicability of this to investees – researchers in our Investible Units+. You need a much stronger case for why an educated investor is a happy investor. Much of the history of corporations depends on investor ignorance or blind acceptance of the corporate pitch (i.e., as proffered by the Investor Relations department).

You’ll spend a fortune training investors and they’ll leave. Your competitor will buy one share and walk away with all your educational intellectual capital+.

It is going to be very difficult to know ‘how much’ to educate an investor to reach your intended results (e.g., retention and attention). Many of your investors will have backgrounds and beliefs that are just too ingrained (i.e., narrow) to ever absorb the ideas that serve as the foundation of the funding agency+. People want simple knee-jerk rules, for example, belief in the power of maintaining a diversified portfolio of investments.