More Thoughts on Alternatives to Feedback

In April I wrote about the No More Feedback book. Ever since it’s been in the back of my mind, and I’ve played with and researched some ideas on this topic. Let me share some of my musings and insights.

A brief recap of the core idea of “No More Feedback” (in case you haven’t lost sleep over it like I have) — again, this is my summary of the book, not my own conclusion (although I do buy into it):

Feedback is based on the premise that we need other people to tell us if we are doing well (and what “well” means), because we cannot assess this successfully ourselves. And, as it turns out, people are really bad at it: cognitive biases, self interest, judgement with limited context, violent communication. It’s a mess. Yes, we can work very hard to improve feedback, but it takes more and more of people’s time, lots of training and in the end people still feel bad and the results are questionable. Feedback is a fundamentally broken concept, and we should avoid it. The alternative? Self reflection.

It’s one of those disruptive ideas, in the same vein as my aha! moment when I finally understood nonviolent communication. Not familiar with nonviolent communication? I wrote about it in the past.

Different from nonviolent communication, which basically gives you a formulaic alternative to harsh, in-your-face judgement — “No More Feedback” does not. At least not one that you can introduce step-by-step without having to rebuild society from scratch, which I’d consider a mild distraction from my job description. Nevertheless, it’s an idea I cannot simply forget, or ignore. Once you buy into it, it leads to a physical cringe every time somebody asks “do you have any feedback for me?” It happens to me regularly — it’s almost literally on my job description, so what to do?

My first approach was to simply avoid the term. Rather than feedback, I’d have input. “I have some input for you!” Lame, I know. Theoretically you could argue that input is easier to ignore (we’ve all written a function that ignores all inputs and just returns 42), and carries less judgement with it. “It’s just input, use it at your peril.” For instance, “when you said X in that meeting, I saw people roll their eyes.” It’s an objective observation, not a judgement, it’s input, not feedback. Ignore it if you like, interpret it as you like. It’s something.

Let’s keep going.

Briefly after writing my previous note on the topic, we had one of our regular internal knowledge sharing sessions (with lightning-style talks). I really appreciated a couple of the talks. In the past I would sometimes reach out to the speakers afterwards with some… feedback. But that was off limits now, right? So what to do? Silence? Appeal to their inner ability to self reflect?

Actually, yeah, that’s partially what I ended up doing.

I asked something along the lines of “Hey, thank you for your talk. Were you happy with how it went?” Self reflection! They’d answer, then I’d tell them what I thought was the significance of their talk: “I think a lot of people learned something about CloudFront because of your talk, CDNs are not something all are exposed to day-to-day and I think it’s healthy to be more aware of this part of our stack.” It’s not feedback, it hints at the significance of the effort. Context as a gift, if you will. While a nice attempt, I wasn’t fully happy with it. This may have been a replacement for some sort of appreciation round, but the goal of feedback is to make the receiver better, does giving them context do that?

In the LinkedIn comments of my previous post on No More Feedback, somebody pointed me to “FeedForward”. At first I thought this was a joke. Lame name. It wasn’t. The key idea of FeedForward is to purely focus on the future without reference to the past (hence “forward” clever right!?):

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.

Who knew LinkedIn could be useful for something else than being harassed by recruiters!

This idea is similar to what they supposedly do at Disney called “Plussing”:

No one says, “No, but…”

Only, “Yes, and…”

Instead of subtracting… plussing.

So the idea is to purely suggest how to make things even awesomer.

Next week, the new book from Michael Lopp (a.k.a. “rands”) will come out: “The Art of Leadership: Small things done well.” I say next week, but if you use the “hack” of just… buying it as a Kindle book on Amazon, you’ll get it instantly.

I read it over the weekend.

A few years ago I publicly admitted on the twitters:

This was a poor choice of words, becoming would be slightly disturbing — especially to his wife, I’d imagine, but you get the point. Lopp is one of my engineering management heroes: experienced, appears to know what he’s talking about, funny, and a good writer. Until very recently he was VP Engineering at Slack, and previously he worked at Apple and Netscape. I often recommend his previous book Managing Humans to engineering managers.

Why am I mentioning this? Lopp talks about the importance of feedback a lot. There’s two chapters in the book fully dedicated to it (both also available as blog posts, so follow the links): one about positive feedback in the shape of compliments, and one about negative feedback.

What are you doing to me Lopp, haven’t you heard!? Anyway, of these two ideas the one about complements seems the least “wrong.” A compliment is defined as:

a selfless, well-articulated, and timely recognition of achievement.

Breaking that down:

Recognition is what you’re trying to provide, but how do you go about this? Is this a compliment you want to land 1:1 at the moment the achievement occurs, or is it the type of compliment that you want to tuck away so you can land it in front of the entire team for maximum recognition? I don’t know. There are so many contextual variables to consider here that it’s hard to give universal advice. Do they need to hear it? Or do others need to hear it about them? Understand what behavior you want to recognize, and why, and make a call.

Timeliness is the easiest attribute to understand. My default is to compliment as quickly as possible because I believe it’s the most effective way to reinforce behavior. That’s what we’re doing here, right? The blandest version of what you’re saying is, “This thing you do is important.” The less time you take to make the compliment, the more they’re going to remember — not the compliment itself, but the act that led to the compliment.

Well-articulated is the attribute that is the hardest to define and the most important. Let’s start with what looks like a horrible compliment. The vapid “Good job!” seems like an F, right? Not true. A well-timed “Good job!” can be an effective and timely recognition of achievement. Even better, how about this?

“Thank you for taking the time to build the technical overview document for Q&A. The feature you built is great, and now we better understand not only how to test it, but how to support it.”

This compliment specifically documents the act, the value, and the impact. It is that detailed articulation that will make it most memorable.

Note that last example, I think that’s “context as a gift,” no? Great minds think alike. I struggle with the “good job” part still, because it suggests I am to judge what’s good and what is bad behavior.

Anyhoo.

So we have a few ideas that I’d graciously classify as “better than nothing” in our journey to improve or eliminate feedback from our lives. Although I’m sure Carol Sanford (author of No More Feedback) would still classify them as toxic:

  • The lame idea of using the word “input” instead of “feedback” — meh.
  • “Thank you, this is why I think this matters” — context as a gift.
  • FeedForward and plussing: “This is how you can improve this even more.”
  • Compliments: “selfless, well-articulated, and timely recognition of achievement.”

And so the journey continues.