Continuous Feedback - Made Tech Blog
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Continuous Feedback

We believe it's important to foster an environment of continuous improvement, whereby the performance of every aspect of the organisation is encouraged to be on an upward trajectory.

This is especially true in service and knowledge-based businesses, where, to throw in an early cliché, people are generally your most valuable, or only asset.

What is Continuous Feedback?

The goal of Continuous Feedback is to significantly shorten the personal feedback loop in your teams.

When delivering software, lean and agile tell us to value things like short feedback cycles and regular retrospectives and course corrections. However, for many organisations, the individuals seem to have been sidelined, and the more traditional annual review continues to prevail.

With Continuous Feedback, instead of having a touchpoint every 6 or 12 months, individuals have one every couple of weeks. By focusing on events from the last fortnight, the feedback is more current, and because the next review is only two weeks away, it's an ideal forum for regularly tracking progress on smaller, more incremental goals.

What's wrong with traditional performance reviews?

We perceive a number of downsides to more traditional performance reviews:

Feedback is not current

If a feedback session happens once every 6 months, or worse once a year, the time between any event that warrants discussion or course correction can be significant, missing the opportunity to course correct or reinforce that behaviour sooner.

There's also a natural bias to focus more on recent events, rather than potentially more important things that happened 6+ months earlier.

Goals are not tracked regularly

On a similar thread, setting goals to be achieved over the course of a year without more regular opportunities to share progress seldom yields the desired outcome. In the days running up to an annual review you may see a flurry of activity against last year's goals. If there is an opportunity to share progress in the next couple of weeks, it's likely to be a much more current concern.

Feedback season is overly time consuming

For managers with many direct reports, feedback season can be a particularly time consuming period as they try to recall the pertinent events of the previous year. In addition, if the organisation performs '360 feedback' team members need to be badgered, and possibly reminded on how to give good quality feedback.

While it's true that Continuous Feedback likely adds up to more time spent on feedback activity over the course of the year, each feedback window is a less daunting prospect.

Feedback is not owned by the individual

In a traditional review format, where the manager authors or collects the feedback, and it's delivered to the individual, there's little feeling of ownership over the feedback. The individual is almost a passenger in the process. If the feedback is from a third party, the individual may also miss the ability to talk to the feedback giver to better understand its impact.

With these downsides in mind, and with what we can learn from modern software delivery practices, we can consider another approach.

How does Continuous Feedback work?

With the primary goal to shorten feedback loops, Continuous Delivery offers up far more frequent review sessions. For us, once every 2 weeks has proven to be a sweet spot.

These sessions are typically much lighter than a more traditional review, running for somewhere in the region of 15 - 25 minutes per session.

Individual responsible for collecting feedback

With Continuous Feedback, it's the individual who should take responsibility for their own feedback, and bringing it to the session. This gives the individual more ownership of the process, and also provides them a forum to discuss the feedback with the giver ahead of the session.

We'd generally steer away from anonymising the feedback process, instead trying to encourage a culture where the team is able to provide well thought feedback, and where people are open to receiving such feedback to aid with their personal development.

Short sessions and short-term goals

As earlier mentioned, because Continuous Feedback sessions typically happen much more regularly than more traditional review processes, the sessions themselves are generally much shorter.

Because the next session should be booked in for a couple of weeks time, Continuous Feedback makes short-term goals far more relevant. Individuals can be encouraged to think about the changes they'd like to make in the immediate term based on the feedback they've just received, as well as what incremental steps they can take towards their longer term goals.

The sessions should also provide a forum to add some check-up, and holding to account for goals that were set in the previous session. Individuals should be coached to set achievable goals, and there should become an expectation that the majority of these goals will be achieved.

Understand individual dissatisfaction sooner

Review sessions should provide for two-way traffic (though in many organisations they may not!). If an individual is dissatisfied in their role through lack of progress, a lack of enjoyment for the work, having relationship issues with others in their team etc., it's generally far better to hear about this sooner, so it can be rectified before becoming a larger problem.

Sessions can be facilitated by a peer

To encourage more autonomy in teams, it's possible to have peers facilitate each other's review sessions, and further, facilitate sessions for their managers. It can be a useful tool to level out an organisations hierarchy, and to offer another forum for individuals to further develop their softer skills.

In adopting a peer-led structure, organisations may want to consider how any individual dissatisfaction can be fed back to people in the organisation who are able to make changes, if for whatever reason the peer who is facilitating the session is not able to act on it.

So now you've heard about the benefits of Continuous Feedback, how can this be rolled out to your organisation?

How to adopt Continuous Feedback

Continuous Feedback is likely to be a significant change in format for many organisations. The scale of the organisation and how open to change it is will be a large factor in your path to adoption.

That said, one approach almost always provides greatest traction:

Start with a small group

If possible, steer away from launching a 'big bang' change on any sizeable group of people. Our recommendation would be to take a group of 3 or 4 people initially, and introduce the process to them, ideally in the form of a short face-to-face discussion on how you see things working, and why you're keen on giving this a go.

Hand-picking your first cohort can be a good idea - people who are generally receptive and enthused by new ways of working, and people who you think may be good allies to evangelise this process to a wider audience.

After facilitating a Continuous Feedback session for everyone in this group, take the next group of people, and introduce the process in much the same way to them. If you've chosen to adopt peer facilitation, it's a good opportunity to have some of the first group induct the second.

Coach on how to give and receive effective feedback

People in many organisations seldom have the chance to provide feedback, and so may not be well skilled in it.

As the team will be expected to deliver feedback regularly, and because they'll be delivering that feedback direct to the recipient, it's a good idea to provide some guidance on how to give constructive and actionable feedback.

Equally important is coaching people to receive feedback well. It is likely to be the case that some feedback will talk about areas for improvement for the individual, and so helping people to graciously accept feedback, and ask insightful questions when they don't fully understand the impact can help encourage a more open culture.

Once the feedback has been collated, we need to do something with it.

Encourage ultra-timely feedback

Even with a window of a couple of weeks, it's sometimes hard to keep track of the most pertinent events on which to provide feedback. It can be worth encouraging the giving of feedback as close to the event as possible, so the individual can bring it to their next session.

Givers of feedback may also choose to keep their own journal of feedback they have for other people, so they can quickly recall some recent feedback when asked for it.

A word of caution here: if feedback is of a more critical nature, it may be wise to encourage the giver of that feedback to 'sleep on it'. Feedback of such a nature should never be given in the heat of the moment.

Provide a framework for making feedback actionable

During the review session, the individual should bring their collected feedback along.

It's a good idea to provide a framework that encourages the individual to document what impact the event in question had, and what the key points to take-away should be. The role of the facilitator should be to bounce ideas off, and to ask questions to help the individual to think more deeply about the feedback.

Once the feedback has been discussed, it's a good idea to look at some goals. Discussing progress towards the previous goals, closing out wherever possible, and identifying any new goals, either based on course corrections from the feedback, or as smaller increments towards the individuals longer-term goals. The facilitator should be doing what they can to hold the individual to account in achieving these short term goals.

Keep momentum up

As with any organisational initiative, keeping momentum remains a challenge. In the hustle of day-to-day work, it can be easy to allow commitments such as this to drop.

You can consider rewarding buy-in from those who perform best at keeping their commitment high, offering public recognition, a company lunch or some other soft benefit. These people can be good allies in encouraging similar from their peers.

Encouraging individuals, when asking for feedback, to highlight particular areas they're focusing on can help people provide more relevant and actionable feedback.

In much the same way as retrospective exercises provide different formats with generally similar outcomes, you can occassionally switch up the format of the review session to keep things fresh.

Overcoming resistance

When rolling out any change to an organisation, you're likely to meet some pockets of resistance. These are some of the common arguments we've seen:

- HR won't let me do this
In larger organisations, HR may be a large skills silo with autonomy over how such things work. If you're unable or unwilling to fight this battle, you can run Continuous Feedback in parallel in your own team. You might have to continue to adhere to the more traditional approach provided by your HR team, but at least you'll have generated and documented plenty of feedback throughout the year to feed in to that process.

- Shouldn't managers manage?

Some organisations are precious over the hierarchy of managers managing people. It's possible to pick and choose how you want your implementation of Continuous Feedback to work - it's entirely possible for managers to facilitate all of the sessions, for example.

As a principle, we'd be encouraging devolution of everything reasonably possible to the team, but that's a discussion for another chapter.

- How can we let people go?

Without the paper-trail of objective setting and measurement that more traditional approach offers, Continuous Feedback could be said to be a poor means by which to manage business exits. We believe such events aren't the norm, and so should be managed by other means.

Our Observations

We've been practising Continuous Delivery for some time. There are a number of hurdles or downsides that we've observed.

More employees buy into it than others

As with many initiatives, it's likely that some people will be more enthused than others. Some people can become anxious when expecting to receive overly-negative feedback (which turns out to seldom be the case), while others value the opportunity to have regular personal course correction discussions.

Poor forum for larger issues

If there are larger issues afoot with an individual, Continuous Feedback is not a good forum for dealing with them. This remains a good forum in which to involve a HR specialist.

Without monitoring it's easy for people to duck under the radar

Particularly where the program is largely delivered by peers, without some sort of tooling in place to increase visibility on the review schedule, some people may go for longer periods without a review.

Struggle to keep accountability around short term goals

A potential downside to delivering the sessions with peers, is that some accountability on goals can be lost. Some people are less comfortable in holding individuals to account on their achievement of their goals.

Summary

We believe Continuous Feedback to be a logical next step for teams who have been working hard to shorten feedback loops around their software delivery, and who have been practising team retrospectives as a part of their development cycle.

If nothing else, it forces teams to have more conversation about individuals growth and development objectives, and provides a regular forum for people to vent their frustrations with a co-worker. The agile manifesto reminds us to value individuals and interactions, after all.

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