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Almost Painless: Surviving Feedback

"And everyone likes a party/But no-one wants to clean" -Keb Mo, "Victims of Comfort"
The concepts of "continuous feedback" and "continuous improvement" are central to agile and lean philosophy.  Esther Derby and Diana Larsen have a wonderful book entirely about team retrospectives.  "Inspect and adapt" itself,  the 12th principle underlying the Agile Manifesto, has been subject to inspection and adaptation and trumped by "Plan-Do-Check-Act."  Teams, processes, work-in-progress--all are ideally subject to frequent observation and tuning.

But what about the people?  As agilists (or non-agilists with common sense), we recognize that we succeed or fail based on the quality of the people and interactions on a team, regardless of the process followed.  If we are going to squeeze maximum value out of ourselves, shouldn't we be putting something in place to tune our people even before we tune our processes?  The grim specter of Annual Reviews rears its ugly head.  Or "360-degree Feedback." 
An unintentionally scary portrayal of the "360 Feedback" concept.
Sure, I know there are some overachievers out there who constantly ask for feedback on themselves, the more painful the better, but count me in with those of you who got one scathing anonymous review on a 360-degree review ten years ago and never got over it.  (Bob, I know it was you).  The fact is that person-to-person reviews are tricky and somewhat risky, particularly when the person DOING the review has the power to impact the salary and continued employment prospects of the person RECEIVING it.  And yet if you don't do power-oriented reviews like these with actual ramifications for someone, it is very hard to jump-start a culture where peers provide this type of feedback to each other in a way that everyone benefits.

Moreover, just as company-mandated "fun" isn't fun, company-mandated "feedback" is more about how to game the annual review cycle than it is ever going to be about personal self-improvement.
  • A glowing review from a respected person isn't just a feel-good moment for both of you--it's also your ticket to recognition, title, salary, and/or internal fame within your company.  Your ability to adapt based on inspection is so trumped by these sensible factors that you are likely not to get the nuggets of helpful advice from your reviewer you could actually use.
  • Alternately, your company may have taken the defensive stance that "positive reviews must be discounted," since they are clearly just there to support a black-market economy of political IOUs.  So now you have to do "fake criticism" in your peer review which "inadvertently" reveals how utterly amazing your peer is, when it comes to salary adjustment time.  It's just like in your job interview where you said your own greatest fault was being "too dedicated to the company at your own expense."  (Sure, feel free to use this line next time you're writing a peer review in an anti-positive company culture.  "Sam works too hard, so it's sometimes hard to get him to lighten up."  That kind of thing).
I honestly have no idea how to fix the annual review cycle, or indeed how a company should determine how much to pay its employees, particularly in a flat organization.  I think it might always boil down to politics and whether the person is in high demand in the competitive job market outside the company, but that's just my guess.

BUT even though I am quite freaked out by the whole concept, I still think this is something each of us should do for ourselves.  It behooves each and every one of us to launch our own interpersonal feedback revolution, for our own sakes.  I consider this to be a routine matter of professional hygiene analogous to tooth or lint brushing.  And I can suggest a way to do it that will make it almost painless, almost fun to do, and almost not terrifying.  Here is my Interpersonal Feedback Revolution Manifesto:
  1. Ask for feedback from a peer at least once per week (in case you were wondering, I personally think tooth brushing should be more frequent than this and lint brushing less frequent, unless you constantly wear black and own a white fluffy pet of some type, like a rabbit or a cat).
  2. Provide your reviewer with the format you would like.  My favored format is:
    • Tell me one thing I'm good at first.
    • Tell me one thing I can improve on.
    • Suggest a way to achieve the improvement.
  3. Be prepared to reciprocate.  Your reviewer may well ask you for your feedback in return, either out of politeness, fake professionalism, or because they genuinely think this is a good idea, and almost painless.  USE THE SAME FORMAT, unless they specify they want something different.  One time I had a person ask for feedback, and I gave it in this format, and they accused me of holding out on them and demanded that I go through ALL of their faults IN DETAIL so they could get maximum benefit.  Maybe one day I will be brave enough to make that type of request (and have a year or so to spend).
I am toying with the idea of printing the format on little cards or maybe developing a smartphone app, to make this seem cooler, but those things aren't necessary.  Here are what I regard as the key benefits of my manifesto:
  • Like all good "lean" systems, this is "pull" driven, not "push."  The revolution is that we ask for the feedback from the people we choose, with an open heart and mind to take the advice, because we genuinely want to get better.  It would defeat the purpose of the revolution if anyone adopted it due to a company mandate.
  • This formula puts the positive feedback first:  We wait to make the potentially damaging revelation that we are imperfect until after we have acknowledged something good about the person.  The formula helps us overcome our bias towards only hearing the negative:  The human brain attends to negative stimuli much more than positive.  That's because in the wild, something "negative" could be a lightning bolt, a tiger or a man-eating plant of some kind, so it was worthy of attention more than the "positive" stimuli like the beautiful pollution-free air or the butterflies.  Today's menaces are things more like heart attacks, alcoholism, or road rage car accidents, so it turns out survival now requires us to tune down our natural "fight or flight" reflexes and tune up our rose-colored glasses..
  • Leaves you with a trajectory towards a better future state.  Nobody ever said the system was good just because you "inspect" it frequently.  It gets better because you turn the inspection into an adaptation.  Analogously, nobody says "Plan-Do-Check-Go Home Depressed."  It's a cycle.  As winter comes before spring, an acknowledged area for improvement becomes an opportunity to read a new book or try out a new technique.
Okay that's enough for now.  But think about it.  Ask for feedback, and provide help to the person in how you want to hear it.  If only a few of us do this, well, I was going to say the world will be a better place, but you know what?  The point is, if ANYONE does this, they will benefit.  This revolution is measured qualitatively.

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