According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, hindsight is defined as “the perception of an event after it has happened.”  We often hear that “hindsight is 20/20”, meaning hindsight provides a clearer picture and had we been able to see that picture in advance perhaps we would have made different choices.  The focus of hindsight is to look back, but I would argue that the true power of hindsight is being able to use it to build forward. 

As we contemplate how to best lead in 2020 and embrace a growth mindset, hindsight can be an invaluable tool.  Whether we are leaders of a team, an office, the organization, or just ourselves, we can all benefit from thinking about what we’ve done in 2019 and how we can learn from it.  

If we dive into the learning aspects of hindsight, it can be valuable to draw upon questions used to promote learning and reflection in education.  A few years back, I was given a reference document from called “The 40 Reflection Questions.”   Initially, when I realized these were questions given to high school students to reflect on an assignment, I almost dismissed their value. However, a discussion within a small working group quickly demonstrated that with some abstract thinking and adaptation, there was value and applicability in a professional environment. In fact, they could serve to help organizations and individuals reflect and learn at a deeper level.  

In looking at the list, I found specific value in the categories used for the questions: backward, inward, outward, and forward.  Not only do the questions cause you to use hindsight, but they also prompt thinking of different perspectives in your perception of past performance.  If we think of a specific professional project, a few of the questions might sound like the following:

Backward – If you look back upon your performance, what do you see…

  • How much did you know about your performance expectations before you started?
  • What did you do well? In what ways do you feel you might need to improve?
  • What problems or challenges did you encounter? How did you resolve them

Inward – If you look inward, how did you feel…

  • How did you feel about this project? What got you energized? What drained you?
  • What were your standards for the project? Did you meet them?
  • What did you learn about yourself while working on this project?

Outward – If you look from an outward perspective, what did others see… 

  • In what ways would managers or leaders see that you did things differently or the same as others?
  • If you were a client, what comments would they make about this work?
  • In what ways would others say your work met expectations or didn’t?

Forward – If you look ahead, what changes would you make…

  • What would you change (e.g., work product, communication, interactions, proactivity, etc.) if you could do the work over again?
  • How would you build on your strengths and what you did well?
  • What have you seen others do or heard from others that you would like to act on?

While this is in the context of a project, we can also use these hindsight perspectives to reflect on our annual performance and goals in developing personal growth plans:

  • Backward – What do I notice most about my performance and contributions in 2019? Where did I shine? What most challenged me?
  • Inward – How did I feel about the year? What brought out my greatest engagement? What was draining? What was my vision of success and did I achieve it? What did I learn about myself?
  • Outward – What did others notice about my contributions and performance? What would my clients/managers/leaders say about the value I provided?
  • Forward – What can I build on? What can I learn? How can I grow? Twelve months from now, what would I look at to say I’ve had a successful year? 

These are just a few of the questions we suggest as thought-provokers. You may have a few of your own.  

Whether it is applied on a project basis or over a time frame,  hindsight is a valuable leadership tool when used in the right way.  The use of hindsight is not intended for beating up on yourself or team members or to dwell on the “if onlys” (e.g., if only I had known, if only I had done this, etc.). Rather, the intention is to learn, grow, and build toward future performance. By developing a habit around using hindsight with this intention, you will promote growth and success for yourself and others.