Effective feedback

Let’s define effective feedback as information about a message that helps that the message produce the desired response.

People find it easiest to follow instructions that tell them what to do. Telling them what not to do leaves them with the burden of what to do. It’s a little harder for you to think what they should do instead of what they should not, but it’s dramatically more productive. Try it out: next time you are informing someone of what they you don’t want them to do, give them one or more examples of what you would like to see instead. Notice that little extra work you need to do and the result of you what you say. Sometimes the reason that the recipient of the feedback has not done this is that it’s a lot harder for them to think of alternatives that for you to. As you give successively more focussed feedback and they successively get closer to the desired response, it become easier for them to do so.

Leaving how to do it, but what to do instead, allows them to make the best choices in the domain in which they, not you, are more expert. Again, this is tougher, because it requires trust and investing in the relationship. Investing in the relationship often means doing so when times are toughest, e.g. when your back is against the wall and folks are making mistakes.

The response that a message produces can be partially correct. Great feedback pins down succinctly what worked so that it will continue to work next time. It also highlights what can be done in addition to get a response closer to that which is desired. These two elements can be combined a variety of ways:

  • Plus /delta: the plus says what works and the delta says what to do differently
  • 10/10: the first number says what works and how to get a 10 says what do differently
  • Keep / try: the keep says what to keep and the try says to do differently

Keep / try is a way of giving feedback that Alistair Cockburn mentions in his Crystal Clear: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams. He uses it in his Reflection Workshops, short sessions held frequently to reinforce what works and to look at how to improve. In these workshops, he also recommends including a “problems” section allowing a least a little venting. Depending on who you have in your group this can be useful. It can also be very beneficial to get everyone to give feedback about what doesn’t work in the form of how to change.

Note: what is important here is for the team to get fluent in using one of other of these techniques. In the early stages, some will ‘get it’ and others still be explaining how badly their team members screwed up. In later stages, sincerity becomes steadily more important: it becomes facile for some to simply say “You did great but this is how you can do better”. This can open the door to a good deal of (justified) sarcasm. Instead, sincerity necessitates that team members really think through why they value the input from the rest of the team. A little goes a long way and leads to a virtuous circle: everyone leaning on everyone else.

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