This is a totally subjective point of view from someone who is not a manager. In my current team at BetterDoc, I am extremely happy about the kind of feedback I get and about the way I can give feedback. To figure out the reasons for this, I thought it might help me to write it down. So this post is actually about the way we give work related feedback on an everyday basis - about what I expect from colleagues, mentors and of course also from myself when we discuss my/our work. This post is definitely not about feedback regarding general behaviour, half-year performance reviews, general project reviews, retrospectives or anything on a meta level. I am very pleased about any feedback on this!

Receiving feedback should be fun because learning is fun.

Why feedback matters to me: In an office environment you often hear this annoying ‘weeeeeeeeeeeep’ sound when two people dial into a call from the same room without adjusting their audio settings. This is ‘audio-feedback’ – the term describes in this particular situation the sound distortion caused by the return of a fraction of the output signal from a microphone to the input of the same device. Sometimes work-related feedback feels like this sound, which is literally the worst sign ever: The feedback was probably not really good. But when the content of the feedback as well as the way the message is communicated are great, not only the work itself can be lifted to another level, but also the learning experience caused by it is differentiable more effective. To gain a shared understanding what is being discussed in the following post, this is my attempt on defining good ‘every-day-feedback’:

‘Differentiated and primarily evidence-based information (spoken or written) for a specific person or a specific group which helps to evaluate the maturity of a deliverable and to improve it.’

How to feedback

To prevent the ‘weeeeeeeeeeeep’ sound from occurring in the receiver’s ears, I have listed the criteria which from my point of view make or break good feedback.

Before the session: Make sure external circumstances fit

The right amount of time must be available

  • Is the minimum amount of time to execute the feedback session available in everyone’s schedule?
  • If you have more time available, keep in mind ‘Pakinson’s Law’ (Any task will inflate until all of the available time is spent). So think about time-boxing the session.

Every person involved into the session must be at the right place.

  • Is a digital place (e.g. FaceTime) or an analogue place (e.g. meeting room) better suited?
  • Is everyone who attends the session comfortable with the place where the session happens and able to access the place properly?
  • Is everyone else who is inside the respective place fine with the session happening there (e.g. colleagues who need total silence for the task they are working on)?

There should be a simple way to visually communicate (e.g. sketchbook, screen share, digital whiteboards…).

  • Are all the required tools available to everyone?
  • For online tools: Can everyone log into e.g. digital whiteboards?

During the session:

Focus feedback sessions on discussing improvement points, not on acts of kindness.

This sounds pretty obvious, but apparently it is not. Nearly all feedback frameworks outline ‘say something positive’ as a first step. While I in general like this thought and also personally value the first sentence in a feedback session being positive, I appreciate understanding what I can actually improve even more since this enables me to learn. So if I receive feedback and know that the person who provides it respects my work in general, it is perfectly fine for me to directly discuss the ‘deltas’. Actually I want to spend as much time as possible with discussing what to improve. This kind of discussion doesn’t only improve my work or broader the product I am working on, but helps me grow. Focussing feedback sessions on discussing improvement points works very well in our current team at BetterDoc, since we established a high level of general trust: I value every teammate 100% and assume the feeling is mutual 😌.

Previous teams I worked in seriously overdid the “start with something positive” feedback-rule: People tried sometimes extremely hard to respect other people’s feelings. Consequently the direct feedback included 80% ‘what I love about your work’ and 20% ‘what you should improve’ although there would have been enough deltas to talk about. While this eventually became the standard after some months into the project, it got nearly impossible to talk about deltas in an efficient matter.

Be constructive and the right level of concrete

Manager saying after staring on my screen for three minutes:

“I don’t know if we are quite there yet, but I think this thing can be improved. I need to go to a meeting now. But well, you know what I mean. Please come up with the improved version until tomorrow morning.”

Me thinking:

“Thank you for nothing.”

Then she walked away and left me with nothing more than complete confusion. Some years later I am really happy for this quote as it makes an excellent example for unconstructive and unspecific/vague feedback.

In contrast to this example, every-day-feedback should be first sound enough to identify the maturity of a deliverable. It should tell the recipient how far away the current state is from the desired one. Once this is clear, the recipient needs to get the deliverable there. Following the feedback should also at least provide a starting point of how to proceed. This does not mean that the person who provides the feedback should exactly outline what to change. He/she should provide hints on either symptoms or the cause of the problem. Consequently the recipient can figure out the details by themselves, what makes the ‘path’ usually more fun for them. Thus, the results are much more diverse.

The only exception is if the feedback provider already knows the exact solution and will not accept any deviation - and simply expects the recipient to build that exact deliverable. But this is actually something that has never happened since I worked here.

Base your feedback on something more solid than your personal opinion.

At BetterDoc we base feedback on

  • tangible results from previous projects at BetterDoc or our jobs elsewhere
  • research we either read or conducted ourselves,
  • literature and popular options of experts, or
  • best-practices from the industry. Working with such differentiated and primarily evidence-based information instead of personal options/feelings/creative intuition helps us to build the right things in the right way for specific people. In addition it makes us faster because we are not getting in non-sense discussions based on personal sensitivities.

When we base feedback on gut instinct, we communicate that clearly and take time to discuss the point. Normally those objective debates result in one of the points mentioned above.

After the session

Be clear about what you expect and discuss the timing before finishing the session

  • Maturity and timing: How mature does the minimum that will work for us need to be?
  • Hard vs. soft deadline: Who is dependent on the deliverable? Which dependencies exist? Which consequences emerge from a delay?

Summary for busy managers [and TL;DR]

  • Before executing a feedback session consider the place, time and tool factors for the session consciously.
  • Please be honest and direct during feedback sessions. We are all adults. Feedback and discussions on a professional level won’t hurt us.
  • Enable me to find the solution if you don’t have a very specific one in mind. In case you do and won’t accept anything else anyway, please tell me.
  • We all have amazing visions for the maximum that we can build. But please don’t forget to discuss the minimum that would provide value to the target audience.
  • Let’s also discuss by when the maturity of the respective deliverable needs to be where.

One more thing

This list is not yet complete - I intentionally skipped some points which would have blasted the scope of one single blogpost. One of them would be ‘Sometimes it makes sense to trust the person who gives the feedback unconditionally, execute it and discuss things later’, an other one would be ‘The most important prerequisite for great feedback: team culture’. I might write about those topics in detail an other time.