Peer Feedback Loops: Why Metrics and Meetings Are Not Enough

Posted by Siegfried Kaltenecker on Oct 07, 2015 |


"Magic mirror on the wall, who's the fairest one of all?", the Evil Queen uses to ask. There seems to be a bit of Snow White in our lean and agile business too: if we don't have a mirror to see what we are doing, we can hardly know how fair we are – let alone whether we are doing a good job. Unfortunately, we cannot trust magic to get the feedback we need. Therefore we design for visual work management systems and a clever cadence of meetings and metrics to support fast feedback loops.

This is the first in a series of articles that will show how to complement these loops. Building on his InfoQ workbook on “Leading Self-Organising Teams” organization development expert Sigi Kaltenecker advocates for peer feedback as an effective means to encourage a culture of continuous improvement. Starting with a problem statement and some background on feedback, Sigi will continue to present a total of nine different methods how to design and facilitate peer feedback sessions.

Lean and agile experts such as Don Reinertsen (2009), David Anderson (2010) or Eric Ries (2011) emphasize the importance of fast feedback loops for a smooth product development flow. Whether it's the build-measure-learn cycle of the lean startup approach, kanban´s evolutionary change management (Kaltenecker, Beyer 2014 or the inspect and adapt framework of agile— it's all about making good decisions by learning from accurate data. We set a business focus, limit our work in progress, measure our system's performance, gather feedback from various stakeholders and try to draw the right conclusions. The loop is closed by the decisions we build on these conclusions -- before we open the next one by gathering fresh data from the actions we took. As Douglas Hofstadter puts it: “You make decisions, take actions, affect the world, receive feedback from the world, incorporate it into yourself, then the updated 'you' makes more decisions, and so forth, round and round.” (Hofstadter 2007, p. 193)

This is how we keep our systems fit and our business healthy, following the motto “a loop a day keeps the trouble away” Yet, there are a few uncomfortable questions to this motto. Do we truly learn something from our loops? Are we making better decisions? Do we improve our systems? Is it clear to everybody how s/he contributes to a better way of working?

Figure 1: Simple recipe for success.

Why metrics and meetings are not enough

My experience with lean and agile teams raises some doubts about if metrics and meetings are enough to nurture a culture of continuous improvement. Many feedback loops I see are very much about gathering data: quantitative data in terms of burn down charts, histograms or cumulative flow diagrams as well as qualitative data about individual experience and team collaboration. So far, so good. For sure we need data in order to improve. At the same time I am rather unsure how much sense these data make in each case: What insights does the team generate? How do these insights inspire countermeasures to identified problems? Does each team member know what to do differently in order to change the situation?

The latter question points to what I see as a missing driver of continuous improvement: personal feedback. To be more precise: the willingness to establish fast feedback loops on a peer level too. Who else than my colleagues are able to see what I'm doing well and not so well on a daily basis? Who is close enough to observe my actions and its consequences? Who can better help me to use my strengths wisely and improve specific skills?

We know that we cannot learn without metrics and meetings. But we can certainly measure and talk without learning. If learning is our goal, we need more than performance data and task alignment. Henry Ford's complaint about the whole person attached to the pair of hands he actually asks for, may remind us that knowledge work is more than brains. Like it or not, there is a whole person attached too. A person with specific behaviors, awareness levels, emotions and needs that highly influence the success of any systemic improvement.

An expanded version of the Johari-window model may help to better explain why we need personal feedback to encourage this kind of improvement (Luft and Ingram 1955). The need is nurtured by our inability to objectively assess our own performance and see what skills we need to work on. According to the Johari model, there are always aspects of our behavior we are not aware of (see figure 2).. This blind spot can result in a serious gap between what we think we do and what we actually do. That roughly 70 percent of executives believe they are in the top 25 percent of their profession in terms of performance, is just one peculiar example for this gap.

Figure 2: An expanded Johari window

Fortunately, we are not doomed to failure. Our blind spot is unknown to us but known to others. That's why we need feedback in order to shed light on this spot and expand the open area of shared knowledge and understanding. Whereas we can simply provide information about our private person to expand this area, we have to ask for feedback in order to learn more about the dark side of our behavior. Even more, we have to do this regularly and ask different people to explore the kaleidoscope of our strengths and weaknesses.

  • What kind of behavior should I maintain? What works well in our environment? What do my peers appreciate of me?
  • What could I amplify? What should I do more or more often?
  • What should I do less or even stop doing?
  • What do I have to start? What additional skills do I need? Where should I pay special attention to?

The more similar answers we get to these questions, the more powerful is the impact of feedback. As the saying goes, if one person tells you that you have ears like a donkey, ignore it. But if two people tell you so, get yourself a saddle.

How to design for and facilitate peer feedback – Three methods to get started

The following section presents the first three methods for cultivating peer feedback. All of them are relatively simple ways to help people acclimatize to the approach. Usually, they don't challenge people too much and are the first steps of showing what the value of personal feedback is about. Since context is king each method is embedded in a real-life scenario to better explain how it works and why it was chosen and the respective situation. Consequently, each presentation ends with a short evaluation of the method. In between, the columns for time, content, structure and goals are supposed to guide you in designing and facilitating. Additional figures illustrate what the practice can look like.

A special business card of our colleague

The first method I want to present has been used in a teambuilding workshop with one of the Scrum development teams of an interactive entertainment company. The workshop was the kick-off for the new product cut within a lean organizational set-up. That's why many team members were not that familiar with each other. Hence, the overall motto was “growing together” translated into an agenda with four goals: getting to know each other better, exploring our potential for the future, clarifying expectations and jointly designing a team charter.

As the facilitator of this workshop I wanted to set the right tone from the very beginning Instead of a formal round for introducing yourself I invited them to create special business cards for each other. The basic idea was to focus on the network of relationships rather than individual presentations. At the same time, I wanted them to pay attention to things they could build on and make them visible.

Here is an overview of my facilitating process:






Invite people to create special business cards for each other by writing keywords on positive experiences, highlights, successes, strengths, things the colleague is happy about and the like.

A3 sheets for each team member somewhere in the room (gallery style)

Self-organizing writing by walking through the business card gallery

Combine movement and positive focus



Do a joint gallery walk to pay attention to each business card.

Let each team member present the keywords s/he has written to make the presentation as vivid as possible.

Gallery walk

Time-box for presentation

Set positive spotlights and pay equal attention to everybody


Invite everyone to briefly resonate with her/his own business card before you turn to the next presentation

Individual comments

Allow for feedback on the feedback


For a team of ten people



Figures 3 & 4: Business cards for each other

As it turned out, the team enjoyed the intro session pretty much. I think that was due to three reasons:

  • the method provides a low threshold approach to peer feedback, i.e. it raises curiosity rather than concern;
  • team members don't have to sit stiffly in a chair circle but can move freely and respond to whatever impulses they receive in the room– which resonates with some basic ideas of agility;
  • the process of creating business cards for each other is as relaxed and funny as the presentation – it is driven by positive thinking and an appreciative mindset;
  • since the business cards stay in the room, they are like powerful pillars for the whole teambuilding process – they emphasize the strengths of each and everyone on the team and how they are connected with one another.

To back each other up

A couple of years ago, I've been working with the controlling department of an international bank. The department members had more to do with numbers than bits and bytes. The implementation of the new electronic file, though, exposed them to new IT standards and was a big challenge for many. Stressed as they were, they seemed to overestimate the change and lose track of their basic strengths. This was the main reason for applying a specific method to focus on the many things they could still build on. The method was facilitated the following way:






Let the team members apply flip charts on each other's backs (use a few straps of tape for this)

Self-organizing preparation of the exercise

Combine free movement with positive focus


Set a focus, e.g. “What do I appreciate of you?”

Invite everybody to write keywords on the charts. Let them put their initials to their keywords to make following-up easier.

Open space for doing the exercise

Dynamic and fun way of exchange


Encourage people to explore their feedback in more detail – best by talking to a partner of their choice.


Enjoy and digest feedback


For a group of fourteen people


Figures 5 & 6: How to back each other up

Certainly, the method didn't solve all their concerns. Neither stopped them blaming IT for their troubles. At least, it helped to shift the focus from overwhelming challenges to core competencies. It paid off to concentrate on positive aspects of collaboration as well as their individual strengths. Besides, the method made an interesting difference to the predominant culture in the controlling department.

As the smiling faces could tell, this difference was well received. Most of them never had the chance to talk that openly about what they appreciated of each other. That's why both the exchange of feedback, i.e. the writing process and the following pair conversations, i.e. the joint sense making, took far longer than expected. Last but not least, the method involves some fun as the pictures of “supermen” and “feedback trains” suggest.

Speed feedback dating

If a team is more mature and a certain trust level established, we can set the feedback bar a bit higher. This was the case with a product management team of an Austrian telecommunication company that asked me to facilitate a workshop on innovative thinking.

In my opinion innovation shouldn't be limited to pure thinking and entrepreneurial challenges. It is also a matter of emotions and interpersonal dynamics. That's why I decided to devote some time of the workshop to peer feedback. How do they perceive one another? What does collaboration look like? Which behaviors would they like to emphasize? What would they like to see changed?

Working with kanban, the team was familiar with feedback loops (Leopold, Kaltenecker 2015 ). The even had done a personal feedback session once but didn't benefit much from it. Some felt sitting together and airing superficial impressions was not of value for them.

In order to make a difference, I wanted to create both more safety and intensity. To support the latter, I provided four open-ended statements: “I thank you for…”, “I appreciate of you….” “I'd kindly ask you for…” and “Could you do more/less of…” , ? These statements were supposed to inspire a series of parallel one-on-one conversations.

After a brief input on the what and why of peer feedback, the session was designed as a kind of open space where each team member could meet those colleagues she or he wanted to. I even decided to let the speed go. Whereas the dating is usually time-boxed and people are supposed to change partners on a regular basis (e.g. each 15 minutes), I left it up to them for how long they wanted to talk to each other.

Here is my final design for the session:






Introduce the idea of personal feedback based on real behavior

Provide a clear structure and questions to focus on (see sample in figure 7)

Short input

Set the stage for good conversations


Let them meet each other on a one-on-one basis – whomsoever and for how long they wanted (alternatively, you can set a fixed time-box to support change of partners)

Parallel one-on-ones

Let them talk directly to each other


Gather again to share a few minutes of silence


Unwind and digest


For a group of twelve people


Figures 7 & 8: Sample assignment & dating

Since the weather was fine, people decided to go outdoors. Some of them even took a short walk. As far as I could see, team members were busy with intense conversations. Although some of these conversations took longer than others, partner change wasn't a problem either. They just gave each other a hint that they were interested to talk and then stepped back to let their peers finish without further interruption. In other words, the feedback session was self-organizing at its best (Kaltenecker 2015).

Spontaneously, I decided to close the dating process by sitting together for a few minutes of silence. Later on, I learned more about the quality of their conversations – and some of them explicitly mentioned that they especially enjoyed the silence after all the talking. “It was great to have some time to digest for your own”, one of the team leaders pointed out. “It took some extra effort to sort things out properly.”


Feedback is an essential part of any lean or agile development process. This holds for the technical level as well as for your work management system. This is the first in a series of articles that advocate for complementing the well-known strategies of metrics and meetings with peer feedback.

Why peer feedback? Simply speaking, because this kind of feedback encourages continuous improvement on a personal level too. Professionally introduced and done on a regular basis peer feedback has even more to offer:

  • It builds on the experience of people who share the most with each other,
  • It increases trust,
  • It strengthens mutual responsibility for improvement,
  • it helps each team member to learn more about his or her strengths and weaknesses,
  • It is an effective way of up-skilling on or near the job,
  • It inspires a different system of feedback loops throughout the enterprise,
  • it offers fresh perspectives for other change initiatives,
  • it encourages specific actions for doing things better on all levels.

Of course, the value-add of peer feedback depends heavily on how it is facilitated. That is why, after some background information, the article presents the first three methods I've tried and tested in various environments. To make these methods as comprehensive as possible they are presented in the context of real-life case studies and complemented by some figures to illustrate what they can look like. Look forward to the next article that will explore the questions “How we benefit from peer feedback and what is needed to realize its potential”. Additionally, it will present the next three methods for facilitating peer feedback loops.

Thanks to Mareen Döring, Sabine Eybl, Gregor Kerlinger and Ben Linders for their input and feedback.


  1. Anderson, David J. 2010. Kanban. Evolutionary Change Management for Your Technology Business. Blue Hole Press.
  2. Hofstadter, Douglas 2007, I Am a Strange Loop. Basic Books.
  3. Kaltenecker, Siegfried, Beyer Michael 2014 “Kanban on Track - Evolutionary Change Management at the Swiss Railways” 
  4. Kaltenecker, Siegfried 2015, Leading Self-Organising Teams. Workbook for Lean and Agile Professionals. Download for free.
  5. Leopold Klaus, Kaltenecker, Siegfried 2015, Kanban Change Leadership. Creating a culture of continuous improvement. Wiley
  6. Luft, Joseph, and Harrington Ingram 1955. "The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness". Proceedings of the western training laboratory in group development, University of California, Los Angeles.
  7. Reinertsen, Donald G. 2009. The Principles of Product Development Flow. Celeritas Publishing.
  8. Ries, Eric, The Lean Startup. How constant innovation creates radically different businesses. Portfolio Penguin .

About the Author

Siegfried Kaltenecker is the joint managing director of Loop Consultancy, specialising in organisation and leadership development and based in Vienna. Sigi has already been involved with multiple international companies such as Alcatel,, eSailors, Kaba, ImmoScout24, Magna, RWE, Swiss Federal Railways, and Thales Group. He is a certified systemic organisation consultant, ScrumMaster, Scrum Product Owner, and Kanban Coaching Professional. Sigi co-edits the Platform for Agile Management (, has authored various articles on lean and agile topics and is co-author of Kanban Change Leadership, which will be published in English in 2015.

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