Self-reflection is essential for understanding one’s personal position on the issues and problems that demand attention. However, self-reflection is not only for individual gain – it also supports the development of communities and cultures.


In 1992, the Foyer Federation was established to address youth poverty, crime, and homelessness across the UK. They supported a network of full-service youth centers that provided housing, employment training, legal aid and other key services to homeless and unemployed youth.

After 10 years of work with disconnected youth, this very successful “charity” organization decided to engage in some serious introspection. They had successfully developed dozens of transitional housing centers that clearly made a difference in the lives of these young people. Yet, they wondered if they were actually doing anything to change the rate of youth poverty and unemployment, or if they had “fallen into the charity trap” – stuck in a cycle of serving the problem, rather than seeking out new solutions to eliminate the problem. Their program model argued for the creation of even more housing centers, which required more staff, new policies and increasingly complex bureaucratic structures that had little to do with the many young people in need. Their work as a charity organization promised to never end because there would always be too many young people with too many needs that they would never be able to meet. Colin, a high level administrator at Foyer explained,

It was very easy for us to say, we're just working on finding housing for those young people and that's enough. But actually the questions are much bigger. There are 2.83 million young people aged 14 to 30 in this country, who are struggling to make a transition to independence. That's what the question is. That's what our work should be about.

Foyers hired an innovation consultant, who helped the staff embark on a process of individual and organizational self-reflection that led to intense upheaval and organizational change. This process of self-reflection took place outside of the daily demands and expectations of the workplace. Staff members were asked to rethink the purpose of programs: re-examine who the clients were, question what staff roles should be, what daily work looked like, and what outcomes they hoped to achieve. It was a challenging process that led to a redefinition of the organizational goals. Instead of focusing on the old solution – raising money to provide housing and services for youth seen as disconnected from society – they shifted to focus on the “talents” of those youth and designing programs to elevate those talents so that youth had more opportunities to build futures around them. Vulnerable youth were no longer seen as lacking in education and employment, but rather as individuals whose experiences could lead to new ways of contributing to society.

This meant that a totally new dynamic was created between staff and students that looked less like charity work, and more like an innovation think tank. Staff committed to working with these young people who were previously considered to be the problem, and instead starting viewing them as important partners in discovering the solution.

This led to great changes in the day-to-day structure of Foyer’s workplace and programs. Staff roles were restructured and titles changed to be less hierarchical. Traditional social workers no longer operated as caseworkers to keep track of whether teens were going to their job appointments or vocational training programs. Instead, even adult staff members were asked to reflect on their own talents to understand what their strengths were and how those strengths might be harnessed to support an effective partnership with youth.

They increased the use of co-working spaces to break out of traditional expectations of how to behave at work, and how to schedule your workday. And perhaps most importantly, they stopped using the language of “charity” to talk about their work. The undeniable statistics about young adults in need certainly helped to garner attention and necessary funding to their cause. However, they saw this language of homelessness and unemployment as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such terms guaranteed that the very problems they hoped to address would continue to be solved with typical responses, such as temporary shelters and job training programs. The shared goal was now to move towards more innovative ways of addressing the national problem of vast youth alienation and collectively finding possible solutions.

This process of self-reflection and the organizational shift that resulted was challenging, and sometimes painful for the organization. As Foyer began to change the nature of their work, some staff members were let go or eventually left. Successful long-term programs were closed as new program ideas emerged. Colin believes the shift was the right one:

The fact that Foyers work with 10,000 young people is just a test bed for us. So we began to see things differently. We began to see our role as understanding that larger picture. We can develop programs, and use our wonderful network of creative services to test new ideas out and then we can use our influence to scale those up.

For more information about the Foyer Foundation visit:


Self-reflection begins with a simple process of examining one’s thoughts and actions, however this is just one important step for inventing new practices and approaches. While typically seen as an individual endeavor, self-reflection is also a critical skill for developing commitment to shared goals. Because so much of social sector work is based on personal convictions, a space for self-reflection is needed to facilitate individual understanding, a sense of common purpose among people in communities, and to support new directions and change for organizations.

To foster a culture of innovation, opportunities for self-reflection are crucial in order to reconsider the assumptions that are made about life, about the needs and potential of the communities in which we live, and ultimately beliefs about what will make life better. Basic questions include, How do I feel in this community? Are my needs being met? Is this community what I want it to be? The way each person responds to these questions informs individual character, outlook, motivations and even every day behavior.

But over time, it is often easy to stop asking these questions and simply uphold those previously formed responses as the natural and necessary way to think and act. Old responses begin to justify work and goals, creating a never-ending loop that requires true courage or sometimes upheaval in order to question and change. Over time, typical language and assumptions can lose any authentic meaning if we no longer pay attention to whether they accurately reflect what we hope to achieve. Self-reflection encourages us to look carefully at the language used to talk about problems and solutions, the spaces in which we work and the rhythms of that work, which comprise our taken for granted beliefs and behaviors. Self-reflection encourages reaffirming or adjusting beliefs and behaviors as our understandings change over time.


Self-reflection requires space and time away from typical day-to-day responsibilities to support individual and community introspection.



Select a problem that would benefit from deeper personal thinking. Consider a particular context or space, a group of people, or an organizational dynamic where your thoughts and actions are possibly incongruent with your desires.

Ask questions such as:

  • How do I feel about this community/context/person?
  • Are my needs being met?
  • Is this community/context/person what I want it to be? If not, why?
Use these related skills: Question


Staff at the Foyer Foundation was under pressure and overwhelmed. Many were originally inspired to help youth and young adults improve their lives, but their jobs had become increasingly administrative. The grants and contracts that supported their programs required that they place a certain number of youth in education, training and employment opportunities or else funding would cease. This trapped them in a never-ending cycle of recruiting new youth, verifying their attendance, and reporting data on the attainment of outcomes. Foyer seemed more focused on managing compliance to sustain their programs rather than actually listening to and serving the young adults most in need of help.


After initial contemplation, clearly articulate the area of doubt that is limiting potential within this space. Determine whether your concerns are related to your role as an individual community participant or to aspects of the larger organization.

Ask questions such as:

  • What is my concern? What do I want?
  • What gets in the way of responding to this concern?
  • What aspects of the larger community or organization help to perpetuate this concern?


Use these related skills: Critique


During regular meetings, individual staff members vented many frustrations, but the challenge of engaging disinterested youth in programs consistently emerged as a shared concern. Many of the social workers simply wanted greater participation from the young adults who received housing and were thus responsible for also participating in job training or education programs. They felt too much of their time was spent running after clients to attend class or appointments. Many complained that the youth should take more initiative and thus free up valuable staff time for other responsibilities.


Think deeply about how you have framed the problem – the terms and phrases you have used to describe the people, the context, and the relevance to the community or organization in which the problem exists. Consider the assumptions that you have made. For example, there may be language that you are using to describe the problem, underlying beliefs and attitudes about the people involved or about the context itself and what you think is or is not possible in that context. History also leads us to believe that certain realities are inevitable and will always exist the way they do now.

All of these assumptions can limit or support how you define problems and solutions, what you think works and doesn’t work, and what can be changed or not changed. It can be challenging to reveal our assumptions because they are often deeply embedded in our understandings of the world. A first step is to simply pose the questions, Why do I think this? Does it have to be this way?

Ask additional questions such as:

  • What is my assumption about the community/ context/ people involved or about the problem I have identified?
  • What underlies these beliefs or attitudes? What prior experiences, conventions, behaviors, or histories have caused me to think this way?
  • What terms or phrases am I using to describe the community/ context/ people? How does this language limit my thinking and actions? How does this language support my thinking and actions?
Use these related skills: Brainstorm, Critique, Data Analysis, Dialogue, Question


A change in leadership allowed Foyer a unique opportunity to critique staff concerns about youth participation. A new executive director was unfamiliar with the history of the organization and began to ask questions to better understand the culture of the organization, the language used, and the reasons behind established program expectations. It became clear that further discussion was needed to engage the entire staff along with representatives from the youth community in deeper reflection about the challenges that existed.

Foyer hired an external consultant to facilitate this stage of self-reflection. “Think days” were held with staff across the organization to keep the process visible and ongoing. The conversations were often tense and uncomfortable because of disagreements and differing beliefs about charity work. Ultimately, Foyer leadership chose to make a change. Foyer restructured the entire organization to focus on a more optimistic view of homeless youth. Instead of providing services that young people lacked (housing, training, education), they devised a new program model centered on promoting the talents that youth already possessed. A different kind of organization was born. One that encouraged disconnected youth to recognize and use their interests and talents to support their transition into adulthood.


Generate an example to illustrate the issue and your underlying assumptions about the community/ context/ people involved. The goal is to take the problem out of your head and explain your concerns to others. However, rather than issuing complaints or critiques, it can be more effective to describe a scenario that exemplifies the issue. A narrative about your concerns will help others to confirm or clarify the issues you have identified.


  • Write a scenario that describes the results of your self-reflection
  • Videotape or photograph the community/context/people in question. Use this visual aid to describe the core understanding derived from your self-reflection.
Use these related skills: Create, Presentation


Colin was aware that Foyer’s work was mired in a charity mentality. He disliked the way that youth in need were presented as faces of despair and poverty. While this certainly generated funding to support the organization, he did not believe it would ever solve the issues that kept these young adults in need of their programs.

However, Colin wasn’t able to express this adequately during staff “think days”. Instead he took a brief leave from Foyer to write a paper that captured his vision of what he called “the charity trap” and the alternative the language of youth “talent”. He wrote compelling descriptions of young people with goals, interests and the potential to learn and apply new skills. Colin needed the flexibility and freedom to actually go away and sit down in a bubble away from the day-to-day work and pull together a new vision for Foyers.


Share your thoughts with others in your community to determine if your individual needs resonate with other community members. An outside facilitator might be useful in leading a process of group self-reflection. An outsider does not likely operate on the same assumptions, beliefs, and history as those close to a situation and can help ask questions that challenge views held by insiders.

Shared reflection is not meant to encourage agreement. Group reflection allows time for all members of the community to voice their concerns, defend their positions, and then opt in or opt out of changes. This helps to support a culture of dialogue and creative thinking.

Ask questions such as:

  • Do these issues resonate with others?
  • What are other ways of understanding the community/context/people?
  • Does this interpretation create new ways of thinking about our concerns? Does it create problems? If so, what are they and how might we respond?
Use these related skills: Brainstorm, Facilitation, Space


Self-reflection does not always lead directly to useful insights, especially if individuals are mired in personal needs and desires that do not resonate with other community members or are contentious.


Foyer facilitated self-reflection throughout the organization but in the end the decision to change the direction of the organization was made at the highest levels of management. Some positions were phased out and departments were reconfigured. All staff members, even senior management, were asked to reapply for positions. Some simply left. Divisions were created between those who agreed with the new direction and those who did not. And since the culture of the organization was changing, new programs were at times passed on to people who didn't actually feel connected to the new work.

It took several years for the new goals of youth talent versus youth need to fully drive the culture of the organization. Now programs, staff roles, and outcomes are organized around the theme of opening talent in youth to build a thriving future.


The Barefoot Guide

Through real-life stories about organizations for social change, these two guidebooks provide facilitation techniques to encourage organizational learning, self-reflection, and growth.

Echoing Green

Be inspired by the personal stories of social entrepreneurs who design organizations and programs that respond to challenging issues around the world. Then use these tools to uncover your own mission and purpose in life.

IDEO Human Centered Design Toolkit (Deliver)

The Deliver phase of this toolkit focuses on the ability of teams and organization to ask questions as they prototype products that serve social needs.

Innovator's Toolkit

This toolkit encourages users to rethink their typical practices for achieving organizational goals. 12 tools offer step-by-step procedures to identify issues and address them through reflection, survey, and analysis.


Method cards are available to support design thinking and qualitative research. A seven step process guides users to reflect, gather and analyze data, and prototype new developments.


Gargiulo, Terrence L. (2006). Stories at work: Using stories to improve communication and build relationships. Westport, Conn: Praeger Publishers.