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Peer Feedback Loops: How We May Benefit and What is Needed to Realize Their Potential

| Posted by Siegfried Kaltenecker Follow 1 Followers on Nov 14, 2015. Estimated reading time: 15 minutes |

 

"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 second in a series of articles that will show how to complement these loops. Organization development expert Sigi Kaltenecker began with explaining why meetings and metrics are not enough and why it needs peer feedback to ensure a culture of continuous improvement. Sigi also presented three specific methods for designing and facilitating your own feedback sessions. This article focuses on the general benefits, specific techniques and three more methods you can experiment with.

Potential benefits, current troubles and needed techniques for peer feedback

What does this mean for a lively feedback culture to better meet the challenges of the 21st century? To me it means that, apart from the objective feedback about both our workflow and product or service quality, we need the subjective data of personal feedback too. In order to realize the full potential of fast feedback loops we also have to focus on people and their behavior. We must not take good work for granted or reduce recognition to rhetoric formulas such as “well done” or “good job”.

Likewise, we should not dance around concerns about the behavior of our colleagues. As Akio Toyoda points out, “If we do not give people accurate feedback based on real behavior they are not growing and we are not respecting them.” (Toyoda in Liker & Covis 2011, p. xii)

Professionally given and received, peer feedback has many benefits. First of all, it is useful for the feedback receiver: s/he

  • feels respected and acknowledged,
  • learns more about how others respond to her strengths and talents,
  • learns more about questionable aspects of his or her behavior,
  • gets fresh impulses for further development,
  • feels motivated to change for the better.

Secondly, peer feedback has a positive impact on the whole team: it

  • makes various experiences explicit,
  • intensifies collaboration and teamwork,
  • encourages the willingness to hold each other accountable,
  • clarifies diverse points of view,
  • build trust in each other.

Last but not least, peer feedback is of value for the whole organization: it

  • connects individual behavior, team dynamics and overall performance,
  • helps to make more sense of any data,
  • builds important skills,
  • encourages specific actions,
  • drives continuous improvement on many levels,

In most organizations, though, neither providing nor receiving personal feedback are a given. ScrumMasters are afraid to ask for different points of view, product owners hide their true impressions, team members suffer from hidden expectations, kanban experts focus too much on technical changes, and the like. Most of them know a lot about the what, why and how of personal feedback. There are tons of guidelines, rules and tools available. Still, when I look into organizations, even in lean and agile environments I see another knowing-doing gap at work. As I argue in my workbook on “Leading Self-Organising Teams” we are aware that giving and receiving personal feedback is important – but practically we do it either wrong or not at all

Where does the feedback trouble come from? Of course, in many cases the trouble comes from lack of trust and safety: people hide behind masks for fear of negative consequences; teams show defensive behavior because honesty bears too many risks for them; and corporate cultures encourage bullshitting because straight talk would jeopardize various political games. But even in companies where individuals are open-minded, teams self-critical and leaders valuing true respect, we face a big problem: when it comes to peer feedback most people lack practice. We simply miss experience that can only come from repetition, from exchanging observations over and over again, evaluating our exchanges and improving step by step.

Anyway, it turns out that enabling fast peer feedback loops involves more than technical problem-solving. It calls for adaptive change, a certain transformation of mindset apart from the skill set you need. (Heifetz & Laurie 1997).

Giving Feedback

How?

Why?

Personal

I talk about my subjective impressions.

To emphasize that it is just one point of view.

Descriptive

Talk about concrete events not about general ideas or judgments.

To make it easier to recognize, understand and accept.

Timely

Close to a specific event.

To encourage learning.

Offering

Provide a different perspective which is definitely not the right one.

To show respect even if you disagree.

Table 1: How to professionally give feedback.

Receiving Feedback

How?

Why?

Active listening

Listen mindfully, paraphrase and summarize your understanding.

To discover the full message.

Clarifying

Ask questions for clarification.

To encourage learning.

Give yourself time to digest

Separate understanding from processing the feedback.

To prevent yourself from justifying or neglecting.

Appreciative

Thank the other one for her/his effort to help you.

To appreciate the feedback giver's attention and time.

Table 2: How to professionally receive feedback.

As tables 1 and 2 show providing as well as receiving feedback are demanding skills since we have to:

  • take it personal,
  • speak the “I” language to share how we are inspired, encouraged, puzzled or embarrassed by what our colleague does,
  • give concrete examples, call for stories, celebrate achievements, and explore the learning behind our failures,
  • make ourselves vulnerable when we bring more of how we are perceived into our own awareness,
  • ask clarifying questions to better understand,
  • make our feedback conversation a joint inquiry rather than a unilateral judgment,
  • be brave enough to give specific advice, encourage experiments and offer help to implement them in our daily business.

How to design for and facilitate peer feedback

The following section presents three more methods for cultivating peer feedback. As opposed to the methods presented in the first article of the series, the bar is set higher. As a facilitator you should check whether people are ready to give and receive professional feedback. Are they familiar with the concept of feedback in general? Do they have experience with peer feedback? How is the current level of trust? Are they mature enough to take it personal? As these questions suggest, you have to create a container that provides enough safety to guide the team to the next level of personal challenge.

Since context is king each challenge is embedded in a real-life scenario to better explain how it works and why it was chosen under the specific circumstances. Consequently, each presentation ends with a short evaluation of the method. In between, the columns for the respective time, content, structure and goals are supposed to guide you in designing and facilitating. Additional figures illustrate what the practice can look like.

A ball bearing of feedback

If you like to provide more structure, you can use a method I call “a ball bearing of feedback” – as I did with a lean startup company in Switzerland. Why did I choose this method for them? On the one hand, it was part of my assignment to support the definition of communication policies. The six founders of the start up were friends but, as they told me straightforwardly, “rather chaotic as a team”.

On the other hand, they agreed that a test of the policies they were about to create made perfect sense. “We don't want airy-fairy policies”, one of the founders said, “they are supposed to guide our daily business in a pragmatic way.” For the nitty-gritty part I suggested to run a peer feedback session that encouraged straight talking. And I wanted them to show and tell what they learned during their conversations and how that resonated with their policies.

Here is how we did it:

Time

Content

Structure

Goal

45min

Define communication policies everybody can agree on: How would we like to talk to each other? What about listening? A speaking order or token when debating? Documenting results? Following up agreements? and the like (see sample in figure 9).

Plenary

Define policies for good conversations

50min

(10min for each conver

sation)

Invite people to meet each peer for a certain period of time. Let them talk about things they really care about.

When the set timeslot is over team members rotate to the next peer like a ball bearing.

Parallel one-in-ones

Let them talk directly to each other

5min

for each presen

tation

All team members summarize their most interesting lessons learned and share them in the plenary.

Invite others to comment or ask questions on each presentation.

Plenary

Summarize and share

140min

For a group of six people

   

Figures 9 & 10: Sample communication policies & ball bearing of feedback

Defining the policies was an easy-going procedure. They had no trouble to point out the values they cared about. The test of these values ran smoothly too – although the group blew away the cohesive structure of a ball bearing and replaced it with loosely coupled pairs.

Anyway, they obviously enjoyed to discover some “unknown territories of myself” as one of them put it. Afterwards, they measured their feedback session against the defined policies and updated them in various ways “We should have done this before”, concluded another team member. “This feels like the start of a new era of collaboration.”

Open feedback round

The open feedback round demands a high level of trust and even more willingness to make yourself vulnerable. Moreover, a safe container is needed. These are the main reasons for using this method mostly within longer-term coaching processes or at the end of three day training classes.

Usually, I start with an introduction to feedback in general and peer feedback in particular. For this purpose I show the expanded Johari-window and other material you can find in the first in the article series (LINK see first article). Afterwards, I suggest a structure for preparing, exchanging and processing feedback:

  • First of all, everyone is free to concentrate on those s/he has the most experience with. There is no point in giving feedback to people you have nothing to share with. As in real life, nevertheless, nobody knows in advance where feedback will come from – let alone what it will look like.
  • Second, there are two or three questions to keep focus during the preparation. For example, “What do I appreciate of you?”, “What would I like to encourage?”, “What could you do less or more?”
  • Third, there is a clear time-box for exchanging feedback. Resonating with Andy Warhol´s idea about being world-famous for 15 minutes, everyone gets an equal amount of three minutes in the spotlight. Within these three minutes all team members pays full attention to the person in the spotlight and deliver whatever they have to say. That is, feedback givers know that they have to be as short and precise as possible;
  • Fourth, once the time-box is over, I take another minute to provide feedback from the coaches point of view;
  • Fifth, once everything is delivered, the next one takes turn, again simply by raising a hand that signals “I'm ready to receive”

As a facilitator you should consider the following:

Time

Content

Structure

Goal

10min

Introduce the idea of personal feedback based on real behavior

Provide a clear structure and questions to focus on (see sample in figure 11)

Short input

Set the stage for intense exchange

15min

Invite everyone to prepare feedback to those you know best.

Let them decide how many team members they focus on.

Do not force them to provide feedback when they feel like they have nothing substantial to offer.

Individual preparation

Time to set a focus

3min

each

Gather again and start the exchange within the given time-box for each team member.

Decide who will be the first one to “pull” feedback, simply by raising a hand. Then, everyone delivers her/his feedback within the set time-box.

Chair circle

Open round for sharing

1min

each

Close with a brief go-around, e.g. by “How does the feedback resonate with me?”

Standup, e.g. behind you chair

Summarize and close

60min

For a group of eight people

   

Figures 11 & 12: Assignment & structure for open feedback round

Since everything is transparent, the open feedback round provokes intense exchanges. This can be tough. Feedback receivers are challenged by getting a lot of information from various sources in a short period of time. Feedback givers on the other hand deliver what's on their minds and inspire each other. In many cases similar observations and improvement ideas are coming from different people. In other cases, different or even contradicting perspectives are communicated. However, it has proven to be helpful to provide some opportunity to digest: either by facilitating a go-around, by building smaller groups or by creating kind of an open space to let people self-organize.

Feedback and feed-forward (based on a simple work sheet)

This method is a variation on the open round as described above. Basically, it uses the same building blocks: a brief introduction on the what and why of feedback, a clear purpose and a simple structure for preparing, exchanging and processing. The only difference is a worksheet that helps people to focus on different areas and come up with written keywords. Often, I use this approach with management teams with a certain level of maturity – as I did with a group of senior managers of an online platform who called themselves “agile leadership team”.

The head of this group, who was also the sponsor of my workshop contract, explicitly welcomed the proposed approach. He truly believed that peer feedback was an effective means to increase trust as well as the capability to hold each other accountable.

Here is my recipe for the feedback workshop:

Time

Content

Structure

Goal

10min

Introduce the idea of personal feedback based on real behavior

Chair circle

Set the stage for good conversations

5min

Introduce a work sheet to differentiate various areas of feedback: What behavior should be maintained, amplified, lessened or ceased? (see sample in figure 13)

Individual preparation

Provide a simple tool for focusing

30min

Invite all team members to review their experience and distill at least some keywords for each peer

Open structure

Individual preparation

60min

Gather again and share their feedback sheets. Let them present the keywords they've written, allow for clarifying questions and hand over the sheets before you take turns.

Chair circle

Open sharing of feedback

10min

Provide an appropriate opportunity to process feedback

To be defined

Summarize and close

120min

For a group of seven people

   

Figures 13 & 14: Feedback and reed-forward: sample work sheet and follow-up conversations

After a period of obvious confusion, all managers started to focus as expected. It took them over 30 minutes to prepare and more than an hour to exchange and clarify their pieces of feedback. They also required more time to follow up by running kind of a speed dating session too, meeting many of their peers for further clarification. “The follow-up on the feedback was awesome”, one manager said enthusiastically. “We had a lot of ideas how to combine individual improvement with our team building and even some of the change effort on the organizational level.” “I especially liked to see how the feedback immediately changed the way we engaged with each other”, one of his colleagues summed up. “We should definitely do this again”, another one suggested and offered immediately to host the next session. Later on, the group agreed on a regular cadence and made peer feedback part of their quarterly retrospectives.

Summary

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 second 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 the background information in the first article (LINK), this article focuses on the potential benefits, current troubles and needed techniques for peer feedback. Moreover, it provides three more methods that enhance a culture of continuous improvement. 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. The third and final article in this series that will explore how peer feedback contributes to a culture of continuous improvement. Therefore it presents three more tried and tested methods and closes with some good practices for getting started and going.

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

References

  1. Kaltenecker, Siegfried 2015, Leading Self-Organising Teams. Workbook for Lean and Agile Professionals. Download for free 
  2. Heifetz, Ronald A. & Donald L. Laurie, 1997 “The Work of Leadership,” Harvard Business Review, January-February.
  3. Liker, Jeffrey K., and Gary L. Convis. 2011. The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership. McGraw-Hill.

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, bwin.party, 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 (p-a-m.org), 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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