The Reflective Practitioner

Some people attain mastery naturally. However, few succeed without special effort. Even golf master Tiger Woods consciously deconstructed and rebuilt his swing. If you don’t see yourself getting to the highest levels of performance without special effort, then model building could be the right path for you.

What is Model Building?

Why Engage in Model Building?

Evolving to the Highest Stage of Professional Practice

Choosing a Focus for Model Building

Possible Outcomes of Model Building

My Personal Experience with Model Building

Concerns About Model Building


What is Model Building?

For purposes of reflecting on one’s professional practice, a model is:

“A representation of the distinguishing features of one's professional practice.”

Model building is then

“Systematic reflection on one's professional practice in order to make explicit its features and enhance their alignment.”

How is model building different
from reflection on practice?

Reflection on practice is inherently valuable.  However, without structure it risks being random and episodic. Framing reflection as model building introduces discipline and structure, encouraging a more systematic effort with likelihood of a more rigorous and robust result.

Why Engage in Model Building?

Every professional has a model of his or her practice; the question is whether it is tacit or explicit—whether you know why you do what you do. Making your model explicit:


  • Enables you to view your practice as a set of hypotheses to be tested and refined
  • Encourages a mindset of learning vs. blaming others when things don’t go well
  • Allows you to better manage differences with clients or colleagues over preferred practices
  • Improves your ability to teach your practice to others
  • Offers you the satisfaction of being the author of your effectiveness

Evolving to the Highest
Stage of Professional Practice

Professional development evolves through at least three stages, each with a corresponding orientation.


At the first stage, the orientation is imitation. The beginning professional attempts to faithfully reproduce an established model derived from theory, training, and/or role models.


At this stage the dominant orientation is toward two activities: adaptation: refining particular models of practice on the basis of experience; and exploration: Investigating and trying out alternative or complementary models of practice, which leads to further cycles of imitation and, adaptation.


The Master achieves autonomy: Integration of all influences and experience into an internally consistent and consistently impactful practice.

Most professionals don’t develop beyond the “competent” stage. They rely primarily on tacit learning. And the part of their learning that is explicit tends to be episodic and fragmented. The resulting practice often consists of unintegrated clusters of largely intuitive practices.

Choosing a Focus for Model Building

Depending on your primary purpose for model building, there are different ways of approaching it:

  • Build a model of your approach to a particular existing practice area. You may choose to limit your model building to an intensive focus on one practice area, e.g., coaching. I chose this area as one focus of my own model building [“Coach as Reflective Practitioner" PDF 1,790k], as have a number of participants in my seminars.
  • Build a model of a new practice area. Alternatively, you may prefer to develop a new area of practice in a self-conscious way. For example, one seminar participant focused on reflecting on a relatively new area of practice [“Wayne’s coaching model” Word doc]
  • Build a model of your overall practice. Or, you may choose to look systematically at your entire practice, with the aim of making it as robust and internally consistent as possible. My own model building took this path, going beyond reflection on my professional practice to include reflection on what it means to lead a good life and even a taking stock of my assumptions about the nature of the universe. [Contents of Grady’s “Model of Everything" PowerPoint slide]


Possible Outcomes of Model Building

Differing purposes for model building can also lead to different tangible outcomes. For most people, the most valuable result is a new sense of clarity about their work that goes beyond any particular formal representation of that work. The “model” is primarily in their mind. However, model-building usually results in tangible products of some kind, typically serving one or more of the following areas:

Doing (being more effective)

You may create products intended to be used in your practice—e.g., conceptual frameworks [“Wayne’s coaching model” PowerPoint], workshop designs, marketing plans.

Knowing (understanding the basis for your effectiveness)

You may generate products that serve as scaffolding in the construction of a more effective practice, but which are not directly used in that practice—e.g., case studies of exemplary or problematic practice, visual models that help you clarify your assumptions about the entities you aim to influence:
[Grady’s “Sense making Map PowerPoint]
[Grady’s “Mapping of Core Theoretical Foundations of my Practice”]

Being (deepening a sense of who you are)

You may achieve outcomes that are less tangible, but nonetheless satisfying. Model building seems to inevitably enhance one’s sense of professional identity. For some it also enhances the link between one’s work and one’s life purpose. For a few, it offers awareness of new levels of consciousness to which one may aspire.

The committed pursuit of model building is likely to lead to results in all three areas.

My Personal Experience with Model Building

My enthusiasm for offering support to others on this path to mastery is a direct result of my own very positive experience with Model Building. On my journey I had the support of a mentor of many years standing, David Kantor. Participating in a year-long seminar under his leadership, I gained benefits in each of the three areas of possible outcomes for model building:

Benefits for Doing

Insight into ways of improving my practice. I gained a heightened awareness of inconsistencies between my espoused beliefs and routine practices. For example, I realized that despite my belief that transformational personal development takes place only over time with ongoing challenge and support, much of my practice consisted of short interventions that were unlikely to lead to the outcomes that I professed. As a result, I began reducing this gap by placing high priority on creating conditions for more long lasting and impactful work

Rejuvenation of my practice. My model building resulted in a deep sense of renewal of purpose and passion. In part this resulted from my getting clear on my core interests (individual development versus large scale organizational change). In part it resulted from undertaking a radical rethinking and revision of my approach to leadership development (shifting away from skill building towards an emphasis on knowing and leveraging one’s strengths, coupled with building capacity for being “present” and learning to distinguish valid intuition from fears and wishes).

Benefits for Knowing

Greater alignment among beliefs and practices. Systematically reviewing the theoretical influences on my practice led to a heightened awareness of tensions and contradictions among my beliefs. For example, I became aware that two significant influences on my work—the Action Inquiry approach (Argyris, Schon, Torbert) and the constructive developmental approach (Perry, Loevinger, Kegan)--sometimes offered directly contradictory advice on whether to point out perceived gaps between a client’s intentions and behavior. I also acquired a fuller appreciation of synergies among my underlying beliefs. For example, I confirmed and pursued in depth my intuitions about the complementarity between cognitive therapy and Buddhist psychology.

Deepening and broadening the foundations of my practice. Reflection of this kind led to an overall deeper understanding of the underpinnings of my beliefs and assumptions. For example, I got much more clear on my assumptions about what it takes to bring about individual behavioral change, and the subtle combinations of challenge and support this requires. I explored some of the emerging original research on the brain that had influenced conclusions on which I had been basing my practice, giving me greater confidence in my understanding. And I discovered new and fresh perspectives on areas in which I had been working for some time, such as approaches to learning that are oriented toward an emerging future rather than the past, and a heightened appreciation of the role of intuition.

Renewal of my passion for learning. I discovered that I had spent too many years giving overriding priority to doing work and invested too little energy in learning and renewal. Model building reawakened my natural curiosity regarding gaps and puzzles in my practice. And it renewed my confidence in my ability to learn, to resolve theoretical differences, and to write. During my year of intensive model building I created the opportunity to write a chapter for a book, which not only served quite effectively to focus my energies but also resulted in a new confidence that I could synthesize knowledge and communicate it to others. [“Coach as Reflective Practitioner" PDF 1,790k]

Benefits for Being

To my surprise, some of the greatest value from my model building came at a deeper and more personal level. It had to do with creating a greater alignment of my practices with my values and with a renewed vision for my work. Along with this came a sense of satisfaction of having followed Socrates’ encouragement to lead an “examined life.” In looking broadly and deeply at my life, I brought into focus (but did not resolve) tensions between leading a satisfactory personal life and contributing to social change. I developed a more comprehensive and systematic approach to supporting my overall health and personal development, incorporating a yoga practice to supplement my meditation practice, which also became deeper as a result of my reflection on its purpose. Last but by no means least, model building stimulated me to undertake spiritual reflection and inquiry, resulting in my revisiting questions that I had put aside for decades. All of this led to a renewed sense of wonder and awe at life, which carried back over into the professional practice that had originally inspired the inquiry.


Concerns About Model Building

People often have concerns about undertaking model building based on common mindsets. Here are a few of the most typical, along with suggested alternative perspectives.

Inhibiting Mindsets Alternative Perspectives
I’m an intuitive practitioner. Intuition can’t be rationalized and systematized.” “Intuition” is mostly the tacit integration of learning from experience, which can in fact made explicit.
“Inventorying all the beliefs and other influences that guide my actions is an impossible task.” True. But there is value in beginning to make your model explicit even if you don’t pursue it exhaustively.
“I haven’t got time for the amount of analysis and reflection required.” It does take time. The question is, is it worth the time (and effort)?
“I haven’t got the discipline.” When made into a structured task, model building can compete with other tasks.
“I will be embarrassed by the results.” The exhilaration of learning is likely to soon override any initial embarrassment.
“Making my model explicit will make me self-conscious in ways that could decrease my effectiveness.” Not likely. If so, only temporarily.


© McGonagill Associates
Photographs: Lew Jones - - - - - web site: QuantumLight