River of Life – creative reflection
June 24, 2011
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When teams get together for work planning or strategy development, they look back to get a sense of what worked and what didn’t, before they move forward. While there are many ways to reflect and set context, one creative method that I’ve used successfully is the River of Life. While it is originally used as a personal exercise for reflection, the River of Life can be easily adapted to a team setting.
What is the River of Life?
It is a metaphorical way of introducing unknown aspects of yourself to others. By imagining you were a river, you can articulate, using the landscape, water, boats etc., the major events and milestones in your life. This is a creative tool that can be used as an icebreaker at workshops.
In a team setting however, the River of Life takes on new meaning. Depending on the purpose of the meeting, the river may represent a team, department or the organization itself.
The process in a nutshell:
- Paste a few large flipchart papers on a wall to cover a few metres. You may need 2 -3 pieces placed side by side.
- Get your group to stand or seat them in a semi circle around the wall with the flipchart papers.
- Let’s take the example of a team work planning meeting. Ask the group how their team came about and who was in it. What major events transpired, what milestones were achieved, what were the setbacks and potholes encountered?
- As the story begins to emerge, start drawing images to reflect this. Start at one end of the paper and move outwards. Use the paper freely. Use colourful marker pens to draw images and icons. Get a volunteer to help you.
- Your river may contain boats, ships, boulders, fish, minefields, logs and such to illustrate the passage of time and events. This creative exercise should include all team-mates as they reflect on the past.
- How much time is spent on the River of Life depends on how detailed you want the river to be. A decent exercise may run anywhere from 1 -3 hours.
Why use the River of Life?
When a team’s ‘River’ is visualized as a drawing, what becomes immediately noticeable is the big picture. Many times progress is noted clearly. Sometimes a ‘River’ may reveal patterns that prove useful for future planning. Yet often it gives a team the sense of pride.
- Because it has captured the milestones, successes and failures over the years, the River can be used much like a guide/ compass.
- People begin to see where they fit in and how they can make a difference.
- Newcomers have a clearer understanding of their roles as they now see the whole story.
The River of Life is an excellent way to start a 2 -3 day workshop. The tool itself gets people excited and engaged, and eager to move towards a ‘planning’ mode. The completed ‘River’ ensures that everyone in the team is on the same page, paving the way forward for realistic, useable work plans.