Friday, October 7, 2011

How to give feedback

Feedback is crucial for Project Managers, both giving feedback and receiving feedback. The sooner a Project Manager has feedback the sooner he can react and change things for the better. And the sooner a Project Manager gives feedback to his team the faster they will start performing better. The question is: do you know how to give feedback? Or do you do it like this guy in the photo?

Set the scenery for feedback
There is only one reason for you to give feedback: to increase performance both by (i) correcting the bad things being done and (ii) making sure people know what they’re doing right so they do it again and again. If you’re thinking of giving feedback for some other reason, it’s not feedback you want. So always keep this in mind: the only one reason for you to give feedback is to increase your team's performance.
Feedback can also play a part in a bigger picture like in delegation. If you use delegation to develop your team’s skills and competencies, then feedback is mandatory in that process.
In order to show how this feedback thing works, I’ll compare you, a Project Manager, with a sports coach - say a basketball coach. Now a coach just wants one thing: he wants his team to win. And to win he has to have a team performing at its best. Isn’t that what you as a Project Manager want from your team? Also, coaches use feedback all the time, that’s a natural thing for them and for their teams and players. That’s probably why Ken Blanchard once said that “Feedback is the breakfast of champions”.

One issue rule
One issue at a time is a golden rule on feedback. You can't turn a team used to losing to win the championship in a day. It takes time. Explain that to your team and make sure they understand it so they don’t bring everything to the table at once. If you discuss several things at the same time people won’t understand the relative importance of each of the things you just talked about. So why did you talk about the less important ones? Focus on the most important thing you want your team to do better (also called negative feedback) and the one you want your team to keep on doing (also called positive feedback) per session. Then move on to the the less important ones ranked on your list for the next conversation, and keep on doing it. And don't forget to keep your list updated, OK?

Focus on facts and analysis
Giving feedback can easily turn into a difficult conversation charged with negative emotions. The best you can do to prevent it is to focus on what really matters and that is facts - that's what you want to change. In a basketball team you can easily imagine the coach using a movie to point out these facts (for instance, to analyze the cause of turnovers). If you use facts and analyze them together with the team it’s much less likely that someone gets offended or somehow over reacts.
It’s very important that you stick to facts and even more if you’re giving feedback on behaviors - which is, from my experience, much more common in Project Management. If giving feedback is difficult for a coach analyzing turnovers imagine giving feedback on someone’s bad mood. In such cases the best is to show a direct relation between cause (for instance, not saying good morning when entering the office) and consequence or impact (other people think they did something wrong and you’re angry because of that). Focus on the impact is a must in such cases. And by the way, you can stress the impact in any case, even in simpler feedback scenarios like the cause of turnovers in basketball - where the impact could be a counter attack and 2 more points for the opposite team.
Now suppose you focus on opinions and wishes instead. Or you’re critical. Do you think it would help in any way if the coach told his team “I wish you didn’t lose the ball so many times” or “did you leave your brains at home before coming to the game?”. Does it give a hint to a solution for the problem? Does it even state what the problem is? It doesn’t show anyone what they could have done to prevent the turnovers, does it? Worse than that, it leaves the door open to arguments that won’t help in any way because if they don’t see what they did wrong they can easily assume you’re just picking on them, right? It seems it wouldn't help much on increasing your team performance... Oh right, and that's what feedback is about, again: the only one reason for you to give feedback is to increase performance.

Give positive feedback
Assuming you’re giving feedback to make your team better, it’s essential that you give feedback on what your team is already doing right because that’s the only way I know of of turning it into a habit. On an extreme position, team members can think that they’re not doing a thing right - just because you didn’t say it. It also helps the message “I’m giving feedback to increase your performance” to gain credibility because you’re showing what the team did that contributed to the end result. And so, these feedback talks become more likely to be accepted by the team members; and make them participate and speak their minds.
One other thing about positive feedback: it's a good idea to start giving feedback with positive feedback first and then negative feedback. The reasons for this are the same, people accept better something they need to do better if you tell them first what did well.

Give room to reactions
And this leads to the team finding ways, by themselves, to correct whatever problems you’re trying to solve. And I can assure you that many times (at least in Project Management, not sure if it works the same way in sports) teams come up with much better solutions than the ones you have - for the simple reason that they’re the ones in the field and they’re perspective is different from yours because of it. So take the steps you feel necessary to involve the team and make them at ease and speak their minds.
On the other hand, if you give feedback like you’re criticizing or issuing a verdict, you’ll kill any discussion before it even starts. So be open, think out loud and involve the team - let them say how they feel about it, what caused them to do it, what they think they can do differently and so on. Be open about it, from start to end.

Use concrete examples
The more concrete and specific you are the more likely you are to have people understand (i) what they did and how to do it better the next time and (ii) how to repeat again and again something they did really well.
If you say “a ball must be passed to where the other player will be, not to where he is when you pass the ball” is one thing. But if you show on a video how the other player couldn’t catch a particular pass, I’d bet on you getting a better result. An image is worth a thousand words.

Give timely feedback
How useful do you think it is to say to a particular team member who has a bad temper, in an end of project lessons learned session: “Your bad temper caused the team to under perform because they always thought you were mad at them”? If you want to correct and reinforce things using feedback you have to do it shortly after the events. If you let a couple of days pass by it just might be too late because the memories are not fresh anymore and people tend to give less importance to it and think you're just over reacting.

Decide on an action plan
And all this, if done right, will end up on corrective actions you can take (when speaking about things to do better) and things you need to do to keep on repeating the actions you want (positive feedback again).
I need to develop I bit more on this last one. And for that suppose your basketball team scores a lot on counter attack plays. It easily comes to mind 2 actions you can take to enforce they keep counter attacking: you can have a couple of fast players running to the opponent’s field every time your team gains possession of the ball and you can make sure every player passes the ball instead of dribbling and keeping the ball to the themselves. This is the kind of enforcement you want to make. Good performance doesn't just happens, you have to build up the chances for it to happen.
And again, if you make a habit out of this, you will have increasingly less things to correct (because it has been taken care of in the past) and more things to reinforce (because they’re performing better and better).
But you need to have a clear path on your head to take you from what the problem is (or the good thing) to a way to correct it and prevent it (or reinforce it). If you team doesn’t see a relation between the two you’re just losing time, so make sure they do.

Show progress
Start the next feedback with the previous one. That’s the best way I know to show progress (or the lack of it). And if you show progress you show your purpose on using feedback: again, to increase your team performance.
This is also a highly motivational factor. Bill Parcells describes the motivational process (using feedback) splendidly on a Harvard Business Review article "The Tough Work of Turning Around a Team".

This is my own perspective on feedback and how I use it. Please do:
  • Set the scenery for feedback
  • Remember the one issue rule
  • Focus on facts and analysis
  • Give positive feedback
  • Give room to reactions
  • Use concrete examples
  • Give timely feedback
  • Decide on an action plan
  • Show progress
But others do it somehow differently - which is in fact a good thing. You can check Forbes 5 step feedback model here, for instance. But there are many more available... the important thing is that you fell comfortable doing it, in a way that feels natural to you, so that you understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing - to increase your team performance. If you do it like you’re acting or following a script of some kind I’m pretty sure you’ll get burned somewhere along the line.
But if you do it naturally and your way, you’ll get an increasingly better team on your side. Just like a dream...

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