Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Try Feedforward Instead of Feedback

Providing feedback has long been considered to be an essential skill for leaders. As they strive to achieve the goals of the organization, employees need to know how they are doing. They need to know if their performance is in line with what their leaders expect. They need to learn what they have done well and what they need to change.

Traditionally, this information has been communicated in the form of "downward feedback" from leaders to their employees. Just as employees need feedback from leaders, leaders can benefit from feedback from their employees. Employees can provide useful input on the effectiveness of procedures and processes and as well as input to managers on their leadership effectiveness. This "upward feedback" has become increasingly common with the advent of 360 degree multi-rater assessments.

But there is a fundamental problem with all types of feedback: it focuses on a past, on what has already occurred - not on the infinite variety of opportunities that can happen in the future. As such, feedback can be limited and static, as opposed to expansive and dynamic.

Over the past several years, I have observed more than ten thousand leaders as they participated in a fascinating experiential exercise. In the exercise, participants are each asked to play two roles. In one role, they are asked provide feedforward - that is, to give someone else suggestions for the future and help as much as they can. In the second role, they are asked to accept feedforward - that is, to listen to the suggestions for the future and learn as much as they can. The exercise typically lasts for 10-15 minutes, and the average participant has 6-7 dialogue sessions.

In the exercise participants are asked to:

- Pick one behavior that they would like to change. Change in this behavior should make a significant, positive difference in their lives.

- Describe this behavior to randomly selected fellow participants. This is done in one-on-one dialogues. It can be done quite simply, such as, "I want to be a better listener."

- Ask for feedforward - for two suggestions for the future that might help them achieve a positive change in their selected behavior.  If participants have worked together in the past, they are not allowed to give ANY feedback about the past. They are only allowed to give ideas for the future.

- Listen attentively to the suggestions and take notes. Participants are not allowed to comment on the suggestions in any way. They are not allowed to critique the suggestions or even to make positive judgmental statements, such as, "That's a good idea."

- Thank the other participants for their suggestions. - Ask the other persons what they would like to change.

- Provide feedforward - two suggestions aimed at helping the other person change.

- Say, "You are welcome." when thanked for the suggestions. The entire process of both giving and receiving feedforward usually takes about two minutes.

- Find another participant and keep repeating the process until the exercise is stopped.

When the exercise is finished, I ask participants to provide one word that best describes their reaction to this experience. I ask them to complete the sentence, "This exercise was …". The words provided are almost always extremely positive, such as "great", "energizing", "useful" or "helpful." The most common word mentioned is "fun!" What is the last word that most of us think about when we receive feedback, coaching and developmental ideas? Fun!

Life is good.


My newest book, MOJO, is a New York Times (advice), Wall Street Journal (business), USAToday (money) and Publisher's Weekly (non-fiction) best seller. It is now available online and at major bookstores.


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