Monday, September 27, 2010

Making Feedback Work - The Anti-Patterns

A few weeks back, I spoke on the topic of "Making Feedback Work in your Teams", at the Agile 2010 conference. I felt like a really popular speaker looking at the full house I attracted to the talk and in hindsight I can imagine why people felt interested in the topic. Feedback is crucial to the learning process and supports the iterative nature in which people pick up their skills. You learn a bit, do a bit, get some feedback, learn a little more, do a little more and so on. Anyway, I don't need to harp on the value of feedback -- I'm pretty sure you agree.

Something else has got me thinking by the way. When I was at Hampi this weekend, our guide Basava was really nice to let me ride his motorbike across the city. While I am a motorcyclist in Bangalore city, I'm not the most skilled rider you'll ever meet. So I had to go back into my bag of experiences to tell myself how I should ride the bike. Here's what I did:
  1. I told myself that Basava's bike was generally quite similar to my bike - the same manufacturer, same engine capacity and the same number of gears. Good start -- I was making a bit of a generalisation.
  2. I then looked at the gear-shifts and they were a bit different. After a bit of a struggle, I tried to convince my brain that this new bike, with a significantly more powerful engine was really just my bike with a slightly different gear shift. That wasn't true, but it was a way to represent information in my world. I was making a distortion of reality.
  3. Finally, I started to ride the bike in top gear. That said, this wasn't going to be my bike forever, so I didn't need to know everything about it. I just ignored everything that was new on the bike - the LED dashboard, the new controls, the decals, etc. I couldn't let myself be bothered by details that made no sense to me. I was deleting information.

So, why am I telling you this story? It's because this is the way we generally build our perceptions. We view the world from a filter of past experiences and then create a new interpretation based on our generalisations, distortions and deletions. This is where feedback can be both valuable and meaningless. Feedback is valuable because it gives us valuable insight into the perceptions that our behaviour can often drive. On the other hand, when we don't see the correlation between reality and the resulting perception, feedback starts to lose its value. With that rather long introduction, I want to introduce a few anti-patterns which we should avoid when we're trying to share feedback.

Perception minus Reality



Most often, it's our perception that drives our feedback. For example we find some people really helpful, others to be really brilliant co-workers and others to be absolutely irritating. So, it isn't surprising that sometimes we jump straight to the perception instead of stating the reality that drove the perception. For example you may say, "Sumeet, you're a very committed co-worker." While it feels very nice to hear something like that, it gives me very little value, because I don't know about what behaviours I should repeat and why you really feel this way. OTOH, if you were to tell me what made you feel this way, it gives me some behaviour I can try and repeat. For example you could say, "Even when you weren't at Bangalore, I could see that you were in touch with us on the discussion forum, IM and video-conference. You took up a lot of tasks for the team during that time and it makes me feel that you're really committed to your work." You'll notice that the new version of the same feedback has two parts to it -- the observation and then the perception. This gives the recipient a direct correlation between behaviour and the resulting perception. Also, the observation is reality which is undeniable. It quantifies your perception, which by virtue of being personal is completely undeniable as well!

Adjective Overload
Adjective overload sounds like this, "Weiwei is awesome to work with. He is very a understanding and effective partner. He is also very dedicated." Carrying on from the previous anti-pattern, adjective overload does precious little to strengthen any one's confidence or to improve their effectiveness. What makes Weiwei awesome? Why do you feel he's understanding and effective? What makes you believe that he is dedicated? Adjective loaded feedback leaves a lot of unanswered questions. OTOH, if the giver was to quantify this perception, it's likely to help the recipient understand the feedback much better. The observation+impact model works perfectly here. For example, "Weiwei always hears out my ideas when we're pairing. We draw out pictures on a whiteboard to reach common ground. This makes him an effective partner for me."

Unspecified Conclusions
On a certain team, I read the following notes "You work with everyone with no personal agenda." and "I think you should be a project manager soon." Going on from the last two anti-patterns, even this style of feedback gives the receiver nothing to work with. What does it take to be a project manager? What qualities does the individual already display? What knowledge, skills and aptitude does the individual need to pick up for the role? The unspecified conclusion gives none of this information. It takes the abstracted perception and doesn't justify it in anyway for the recipient -- as a consequence, it's nothing but a short lived ego-booster.

Improve Effectiveness? No Chance!
A lot of written feedback I've seen reads like this, "I'm sorry, I can't think of anything you can improve on." People need to be damn perfect for us to not find any ideas to help them grow. My ex-colleague, and Gordon Pask award winner Liz Keogh suggests that if someone was really good at their current job/ role, then we should investigate the next challenge they're moving onto or are longing for. That information can help us make suggestions that'll help them bridge the gap between what they're doing today and what they need to do tomorrow. So even if you're giving feedback to the ultimate perfectionist, consider what will help them grow into the next assignment they're moving onto.

In my Defense
Last but not the least, I want to make a case for not being defensive when receiving feedback. If you've known me for a while, you know that I'm a big fan of Dr. Randy Pausch's last lecture. My favourite story is the one Dr Pausch told about his football coach, Jim Graham:

"And the other Jim Graham story I have is there was one practice where he just rode me all practice. You’re doing this wrong, you’re doing this wrong, go back and do it again, you owe me, you’re doing push-ups after practice. And when it was all over, one of the other assistant coaches came over and said, yeah, Coach Graham rode you pretty hard, didn’t he? I said, yeah. He said, that’s a good thing. He said, when you’re screwing up and nobody’s saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up. And that’s a lesson that stuck with me my whole life. Is that when you see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you anymore, that’s a very bad place to be. Your critics are your ones telling you they still love you and care. "

That story has stuck with me for the last three years or so. Feedback is a gift - people offer it to you with the best intentions. To argue against it or to offer justifications is equivalent to rejecting a gift. Granted all gifts don't come in the best wrappers and granted that all gifts aren't useful. The best you can do when you're receiving a gift though is to say "Thank You!". Just as we'll often go back home and then think of the best way to use the gift, it's a good idea to reflect on the feedback we get. Often we'll realise how we can grow from the feedback and equally often we'll realise that we can't do much with the feedback. Both possibilities are fine -- we just need to establish our openness to the gifts people offer us.
To be frank, there are several other anti-patterns I could discuss here and we could keep going on until the cows come home. The fact is that I've got to close this post now and you must be tired of reading this weekly rant. If you like posts of this nature, I'll try touch upon other aspects of feedback in future posts. In the mean time please do let me know how you liked this article. Your comments help me tailor this blog to the way you'd like it to be.

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