Holding Up The Mirror. What does that even mean? How would you do it?

Looking at a Gantt Chart using a mirror (failed attempt). It’s not that easy.

Here’s a thing. Have you ever had a conversation where someone says; “let’s hold the mirror up to that one”, you make agreeable noises and nod your head in a seriously earnest way?

However, deep down you are wondering; “what on earth does that even mean?”, “how do we stick a project review action plan in front of a mirror?”, “does this involve me standing in front of the bathroom mirror photographing A3 Gantt Charts?” Arrggggghhhh!

Help from The Bard? Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2, Lines 20-21. If you studied English Literature in school you might be familiar with this quote from Shakespeare, “to hold as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”. Maybe this is what it’s all about?

I was always rubbish at interpreting what important literature means, so for definitive guidance I’ve gone straight back to every students favourite, the No Fear Shakespeare sparknotes. Apparently the quote is simply direction given to the actors to not exaggerate in their performances. They need to represent the reality of life, good and bad. The purpose of the play is to be a ‘moral reminder’ for those watching, and the actors need to avoid overdoing it.

That’s all well and good, but not a lot of use for the Gantt Chart mirror challenge. More help is required.

Do go and listen to this…

More help from Art: BBC Radio 4, Only Artists. This is more like it. It turns out ‘holding up the mirror’ is a physical thing that painters actually do! The purpose is to get a different view of the work.

It’s far better explained by Painter Jonathan Yeo in his conversation with Music Producer William Orbit in this episode of Only Artists. I’d very much recommend listening to the whole 30 minutes (it’s really entertaining and informative, one of the many reasons I’m happy to pay the BBC licence fee). However, if you are short of time it’s between 24.20 – 24.40 minutes here on the Podcast. If you aren’t quite sure if my over enthusiastic recommendation is worth the investment of your time, here’s the gist of what Jonathan Yeo says:

…”The reason you look at things in the mirror when you are doing a painting is to make it look unfamiliar. Because when you’ve been looking at something for a long time it looks right to you, you can’t see the mistakes any more. It looks right just because you’ve got used to it. You look at it in the mirror to see it fresh”…

It turns out that painters have been doing this for ages and have all sort of techniques to see their creations with ‘fresh eyes’. Have a browse of this Community discussion on ‘Wet Canvas’, where looking at paintings; in mirrors, upside down, through sunglasses and even welding goggles is perfectly acceptable (though not all at the same time, I’m guessing?)

Musicians are at it too. Responding to Jonathan Yeo, William Orbit shared a few of the techniques that are used in music to ‘hold up the mirror’. These included:

  • Listening to a track backwards,
  • Slowed down or speeded up,
  • Turning the headphones around,
  • Listening from another room (like the kitchen while making a cup of tea),
  • With different ears (basically, get someone else to listen and give feedback).

Some of this sounded similar to the Oblique Strategies method I wrote about in Random Disruption, Rock Stars and Innovation, which is (apparently) widely used in the music industry to unblock creativity.

One of the other interesting things that William Orbit said was, that you should absolutely ‘hold up the mirror’ if what you are working on feels like the best or the worst work you’ve ever done. I think that’s an important point and fits very closely with what Jonathan Yeo said about not being able to see mistakes as you’ve become too used to seeing what’s in-front of you. I wonder how many times I’ve laboured over a report or briefing note (or blog post) and have failed to see the mistakes because I’ve become too familiar with it? Every single time if I’m honest.

So, how do you hold up the mirror? In the world of written work the ‘standard’ technique would be for someone else to review what you are doing. That’s fine in theory, but it always runs the risk of the reviewer indulging themselves in their ‘red pen teacher fantasy’, you getting offended and everyone retreats to their bunkers. Not the best outcome.

Looking at the techniques from painting and music I wonder if we should be thinking about something similarly creative for the Gantt Chart Challenge? What would the Gantt Chart look like if you literally did look at it in the mirror? I’ve no idea, but it might give a view on mistakes, ‘uneven delivery timeline balance’ or who knows what? So, if someone does say, “lets hold up the mirror”, suggest a few experiments to see what works. Better to see the mistakes yourself than wait until the work is on public display.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. If you spend a long time focusing on the same thing it becomes very familiar and you run the risk of not ‘seeing’ mistakes.
  2. Another viewpoint or taking a ‘fresh look’ can help to spot the mistakes before they are exposed to public scrutiny.
  3. Painters and Musicians have techniques to do this. Rather than just saying ‘hold up the mirror’, it’s worth testing a few methods that would allow you to actually see things differently.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

2 Responses

  1. This is very helpful! I run After Action Reviews and train AAR Conductors in the health service and I love the example of painters using a mirror to see their work more clearly. I use AARs to help those involved to see the bigger picture of an action, eg a patient safety issue, a project that has got stuck or a more arduous than necessary inspection. But there is still a lot of resistance to looking in that mirror! I will borrow the painter example to help explain the value. Thanks

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