I just finished another satisfying coaching session. In the true spirit of Scrum, we spend a few minutes reflecting on the session. We think about what worked and what we want to change going forward. We both offer our honest thoughts and feelings about the session to co-create the remaining sessions. Leaving the session energized, enthusiastic, and motivated. I can’t help but think of the many Scrum retrospectives I’ve been part of that don’t quite feel so supportive and co-creative. Few retrospectives manage to inspire – let alone drive – action. It leaves me thinking about what makes feedback sessions valuable.

In a previous post, I reflected on how feedback helps drive productivity, but what makes feedback a co-creative and supportive ritual compared to the checklist grind work in so many Scrum teams?

Here are my reflections and the top elements I believe make feedback a support structure for change.

The Intent of the Feedback

Do you really want feedback? Are you committed to change?

So many team leaders schedule feedback sessions with the intent of understanding why goals weren’t met and what went wrong. They’re focused on the problems as an outsider, not a committed insider looking for solutions. They don’t really want to use the information to drive change. They just want to satiate their unquenchable desire for control by knowing what’s going on at all times.

A feedback session becomes supportive and motivating when the intent behind it is genuine curiosity and a commitment to change. Only ask for feedback when you’re willing to change.

Feedback is a Two-Way Street

A feedback session is an opportunity to talk about what doesn’t work. But it has to work for both parties, not just one.  Healthy relationships take both parties’ needs into consideration, not one or the other.

For feedback to become a motivating support structure there needs to be equal feedback from all sides participating in the conversation. If it is feedback between an employee and a manager, both need to talk about what they need and what they appreciate. When it’s feedback between a coach and a coachee, both need to have the courage to say what works for them and what doesn’t.

If only one side gets an opportunity to raise their concerns it creates an unrealistic expectation that management will support everything they ask for.  When, however, feedback is from both sides, it strengthens the relationship.  A perspective is more realistic and complete when there are two sides presented.

Start Positively

Feedback is an opportunity to talk about what doesn’t work. It is also an opportunity to reflect on what is working well.  People so often omit to celebrate their successes.  They don’t believe it’s necessary to focus on successes because they don’t need to change that.

Yet, only focusing on what needs to change tips the motivation levels towards the negative side.  It is essential to focus on what went well as I elaborated on in a post on the power of positive organizational change.  Not only is it essential to raise motivation, but it is also necessary to ensure the ratio of positive to negative feedback remains at about 3:1.

In his brilliant book Buddha’s Brain, Dr. Rick Hanson describes how our mind is like Teflon for positive experiences and Velcro for negative ones.   Like Teflon, we quickly forget the positive feedback we received, but one piece of negative feedback sticks like Velcro.

It is essential to balance positive and negative feedback to keep the team motivated. Too much negative feedback will demotivate the team, while too much positive feedback will give a false overlay of reality.

Start with pointing out the positive elements and only once the team sufficiently feels supported, look at what needs improvement.

Just One Thing

A common mistake with feedback and retrospectives I see so often is that the team will come up with a long list of possible improvements, without prioritizing the one most important thing to translate into action. Inevitably the list of to-do’s become longer and longer.

In design, thinking possibilities are listed as part of the divergent thinking phase.  It is the start of the thinking process, however, and once a number of possibilities have been identified, the convergent thinking phase analyses and prioritizes this list to choose the most important item to action.

In coaching the coach guides the coachee through a similar process and then helps select a SMART goal that is achievable, realistic, and with a clear measure of success.

Never allow the list of improvements to be longer than what realistically can be included as action items in the following iteration. It is better to take one, small, action than have a long list of possibilities.

Bias Towards Action

Change can only happen when you do something different. For a feedback session to become a positive support structure it has to end in action.  That means there is clarity, alignment, and agreement as to what to do, and there are clear responsibilities assigned.

When scientists wanted to understand why a woman got murdered in New York while about 36 of her neighbors witnessed the crime without calling authorities, they discovered that the primary indicator of action is directly related to the number of observers or participants.  When people are in a group they are less likely to take responsibility as they assume someone else will. However, when a bystander is alone when they witness someone in distress, they are far more likely to act.

Feedback sessions drive positive change when there is movement, even if it is very small.  There is little more demotivating than working hard without seeing any change or impact as a result of what you are doing.

Make sure that a feedback session ends with one, achievable action.

Pull Rather Than Push

Another key aspect of change is that for actions to be followed through on, it has to be pulled by the people rather than assigned to them in a push action. When people come up with options and then choose to own them, change is the natural by-product of feedback.

Allow people to come up with possibilities and then allow them to volunteer to act on the ideas. When the leader assigns responsibility there is little to no ownership. To read more about this dynamic read my post titled “The relationship between trust and control“.

Don’t Give Up Too Soon

So many times I’ve seen teams try something and when it doesn’t immediately yield the results they anticipated, they give up. This, however, isn’t a very scientific and realistic approach to change and is a fixed mindset approach to change.

A growth mindset views each improvement as a hypothesis and applies scientific thinking and curiosity to find the best option. For this to work, however, you need to focus on the evidence of the desired outcome rather than an output.

Think about what you would like to happen and then critically think about the possible evidence that would tell you that it worked. Maybe people will work less overtime, or the customers will have a higher customer satisfaction rating. Focus on the desired behaviors rather than getting stuck on the rightness of your perceived solution.

Just because your improvement didn’t work the first time you tried it doesn’t mean it’s a failure. By adopting the improvement idea ever so slightly you are able to make smaller changes until you start seeing the evidence of success.

Focus on Solutions, Not Problems

Most people are very clear when they tell you what they don’t want, but find it hard to articulate what they want. For feedback to become motivating and constructive rather than being perceived as criticism, be sure to focus on what you do want.  Articulate your goal in five words or less, positively phrased.

End with Gratitude

People might not remember the content of an entire feedback session, but they will always remember how you made them feel. Always end positively if you want feedback to drive motivation and action. People are more likely to follow through and act on decisions and ideas when they feel motivated.

Leave the team on a high note by expressing a concrete behavior or outcome you appreciate. Be explicit and use a specific example. And only say it if you mean it from the bottom of your heart. When you say the words without truly meaning it you reduce trust.

Follow Up

Finally, feedback is as valuable as what you do with it. Make sure you create a culture of follow-through by checking in and using the ideas offered in the session.  It is extremely demotivating when you come up with an idea that excites everyone just for it to lie dormant without any action.

To make people feel valued and heard, it is crucial to take their feedback and act on it.  Also, make sure to give them feedback on the impact the change had.

Feedback has the power to create a chain of positive change in your organization. Are you making the most of this simple tool?

With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.