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Peer Feedback Loops: How to Contribute to a Culture of Continuous Improvement

| Posted by Siegfried Kaltenecker Follow 2 Followers on Dec 20, 2015. Estimated reading time: 14 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 third and final article that will connect readers with the topic. Organization development expert Sigi Kaltenecker began with the “why?” of peer feedback and the first three methods to facilitate it. It continued focusing on the “what?” and some more practical methods. The current article is mostly on the “how?”. Sigi asks how peer feedback contributes to a culture of continuous improvement, presents another three methods to do so and closes with some recommendations for getting started and going.

How peer feedback contributes to a culture of continuous improvement

It shouldn't come as a surprise that traditional performance appraisals, 360-degree scorecards, employee surveys or assessment centers hardly support the behaviors needed for professional peer feedback. Are positive and negative aspects of our behavior appropriately balanced? Do we speak the “I” language to share how we are inspired, encouraged or puzzled by what our colleague does? Do we make ourselves vulnerable and ask clarifying questions to better understand how we are perceived? Are our feedback conversations joint inquiries rather than unilateral judgments? (LINK to second article) In most organizations, I'm afraid, the answer is “no”.

If we want to make personal feedback an additional driver of continuous improvement, it can neither be reduced to hierarchical relationships nor to standardized evaluations. We need different formats to encourage trustful exchanges and mutual help.

What do these formats look like? What do we have to do to make feedback a daily routine? How can we create kind of a peer feedback kata? As the coaching kata of the Toyota Production System shows (Rother 2009), personal feedback is most effective when given as timely and close to our daily business as possible. Why should we wait to appreciate good ideas, acknowledge positive impulses, challenge negative behavior or confront mistakes until we have the opportunity to use one of the formats below?

No doubt, we want to encourage peer feedback as part of our daily work. Yet, for most companies this is kind of the champions league of feedback rather than their current capability. Although many lean and agile professionals have good experience with knowledge sharing formats such as pair programming, communities of practice or lean coffee sessions, we still need a lot of training to qualify for this champions league. That is, we have to provide and receive peer feedback over and over again – best under the observation of an experienced coach or mentor who  can create the right container and guide the process.

How to design for and facilitate peer feedback

The following section presents three more methods for cultivating peer feedback. As opposed to the ones presented in the first and the second article of the series, these methods are kind of the master class. As a facilitator you need profound experience with feedback sessions. Systemic thinking doesn't hurt either (Kaltenecker, Myllerup 2011)

Since context is king each method is embedded in a real-life scenario to better explain how it works and how it was chosen. 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.

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

If a group agrees to run regular peer feedback sessions you have to facilitate follow-ups that are neither boring nor overwhelming. The agenda of the leadership group mentioned in the second article of the series was ambitious: it encompassed a brief review of what happened since the first round of peer feedback (What worked well? Where did we already see improvements?), an update of observations (What new aspects of behavior did we notice?) and another loop into the future (What do we expect?).

I added some flavor to this agenda if you start with a brief self-evaluation before you get fresh feedback from your peers.

Here is how I translated this agenda into a workshop design:

Time

Content

Structure

Goal

20min

 

 

Let people hand back the worksheets that have been filled out at the first feedback session.

Give them enough time to update these worksheets in two ways: by reviewing strengths as well as weaknesses, and by adding additional data in terms of experiences and expectations that haven't been mentioned before.

Let them add some keywords on the sheets, best by using a different color.

Clear assignment

(see sample in figure 15)

 

Individual preparation

Reuse and update your feedback tool

50min

 

Gather again and share your thinking. Stick to the principle that one person gets feedback from all sides before you take turns.

Hand over all feedback sheets before you focus on the next person.

Give feedback receivers the chance to clarify – but don't allow for discussions.

Chair circle

Open sharing of feedback

10min

Provide an appropriate opportunity to process your feedback

To be defined

Summarize and close

80min

For a group of seven people

 

 

Figures 15 & 16: Update on feedback and feed-forward session: assignment and exchange

There are many benefits coming along with such an update. People practice to:

  • take mutual responsibility for individual as well as team development;
  • consistently build on the peer feedback given and received;
  • acknowledge any change efforts;
  • appreciate positive differences that have been made;
  • provide new challenges;
  • share ideas and recommendations that might help.

As the management team pointed out, the update caused many aha-moments, especially when they compared their self-evaluations with what their colleagues sensed. Fortunately, monitoring your ongoing change efforts is no deadly serious business. Catching yourself doing the same stupid stuff over and over again, getting some of your blind spots enlightened or listening to funny comments on weird patterns inspire haha-moments too.

Ask for help

“Ask for help” offers a different approach to peer feedback. Rather than being confronted with a broad variety of perceptions and recommendations, you pull them in a specific direction – as we did in a workshop with a so-called change team that was responsible for the agile transition of more than 200 people.

What does pulling feedback mean? It means to ask for help in areas you'd like to improve yourself: “What am I struggling with at the moment?” “How can I change things I am dissatisfied with?” “How will I make a difference to my team?” In other words: this method encourages your team to deep dive. After reviewing your own achievements you point out one specific topic you'd like to focus on – best by using a formula such as “How could I better deal with…?”

For more details see the following instructions:

Time

Content

Structure

Goal

10min

Introduce the idea of professional help and provide a structure for how to ask for and offer help (see sample in figure 15)

Short input

Set the stage for helpful conversations

10min

 

 

Invite everyone to point out one specific question where s/he needs help

Individual preparation

Set a clear focus for receiving help

60min

 

Clarify how people are supposed to meet each other in a self-organizing way .

Create kind of an open space where people can talk to each other according to their interest and area of expertise. By the way: don't feel under pressure to make helping a reciprocal experience. If you have nothing substantial to offer to those who helped you just say thank you!

Container for conversations

Open sharing of feedback

10min

Gather again to share a few minutes of silence

Chair circle

Unwind and digest

90min

For a group of six people

 

 

Figures 17 & 18: Assignment to ask for and offer help and practice

Why this method? The feedback on this feedback session provided the following answers:

  • “Thanks to your feedback I've got a fresh perspective on my evergreen problem.”
  • “It is much clearer how I contributed to the problem, hindering myself to solve it.”
  • “I really appreciate the feedback – especially the critical part of it.”
  • “I'm already looking forward to implement some of the ideas you suggested – and review the results latest in our next feedback session.”

Of course, the quality of the questions makes and breaks the help you receive. When there isn't enough trust established people may t hide their true struggles and ask questions where they actually feel comfortable. Likewise, when the team is not mature enough to hold each other accountable they may bore each other with general advice.

Skills radar

This method needs a bit more effort. Before you start you have to be clear about:

  • the skills you want to build up,
  • the concrete behaviors you want to enforce,
  • a specific method to assess the current state of these skills and behaviors,
  • a cadence to apply this radar on a regular basis,
  • the people who should be involved.

Actually, we are talking about an improvement process that is at the heart of any professional development. This was the case with a business unit that was very successful in providing tailor-made solutions to their customers. The general idea of the director of engineering was to mirror the quality of their lean business processes in the quality of their leadership. Among other things, a feedback system was considered essential for achieving this goal.

Starting with what they did now, we defined a number of requirements for professional leadership. After a complementing training in leading self-organizing teams building on my workbook (LINK http://www.infoq.com/minibooks/leading-self-organising-teams) that ensured a common understanding of what was needed, we came up with a minimal viable assessment to be tried and tested.

Here is an overview of the workshop in which we defined the nuts and bolts of our approach:

Time

Content

Structure

Goal

tbd

Prepare a list of skills that are considered essential for your team.

Give each team member as well as important stakeholders (e.g. managers, other teams, customers, …) a say on what this list should look like.

Open

Agree on a shared list of essential skills for your area of responsibility.

10min

 

 

30min

 

 

Start with letting everyone score the current state of her/his own skill set.

Invite team members to score the skills of each other: What do I think is the current state of my peer's capabilities?

Make It clear that everyone must have concrete examples to explain her/his score. In other words: do not score, if you don't have real data at hand. (seeLinders, Ben 2014 “Getting Feedback with the Perfection Game“ 

Individual preparation

Make skills appraisal a team activity

45min

 

Exchange your appraisal sheets.

Invite people to digest the feedback they've got and compare it with their self-evaluation.

Allow them to ask clarifying questions in order to learn as much as possible.

Encourage everyone to draw conclusions and decide what to do next.

Open space for mapping and clarifying

Clarifying feedback and focusing on next steps.

5min

each

Let people summarize their lessons learned: how do they want to continue, stop, start?

Collect ideas how to improve the radar itself

Gallery style

Link feedback and feed-forward

120min

For a group of eight (excluding the amount of time needed to prepare a minimal viable radar)

 

 

Figures 19 & 20: Sample skills radar work sheet and gallery walk on next steps

The workshop was considered an intriguing experiment. In the words of the director who went first in summarizing his own experience: “I learned more about the gap between how I see myself and how my colleagues see what I'm actually doing”. One of the leaders even said: “Frankly, your feedback delivered more value than anything else I did before.”

Consequently, the session didn't just lead to individual improvement steps. It also helped to establish a regular cadence of assessing the skills for the management level. Even more, the company is currently exploring how to replace the old-fashioned system of performance appraisals throughout the enterprise.

How to get started and going

How can you make best use of these methods? In general, you can use whatever you like. You are free to apply any of the methods presented in the three articles, run first experiments and see what the team gets out of it. You can repeat your experiments to learn more about the impact of peer feedback. You can tailor your own format by combining some of the elements presented above or creating other elements. In short: there are many ways to get started.

Yet, as with many things, the hard part is keep going. if you don't want to make peer feedback a one hit-wonder, you need more than a nice method every now and then. At the end of the article series, I'd like to share a few practices that have proven to be helpful for cultivating peer feedback loops in a consistent manner.

  • Start with what you do now, i.e. in line with your current situation. What are you busy with at the moment? What are your most important challenges? How can personal feedback help you to meet these challenges? Do not focus on feedback if you cannot find an answer to the latter question(Leopold, Kaltenecker 2015 http://www.infoq.com/articles/book-review-kanban-change-leadership).
  • Clarify what you can build on: What do people know about feedback? What experience do they have in sharing knowledge and observations? How does the idea of peer feedback resonate with your overall corporate culture?  Be aware
  • Help everybody understand the basics: What is personal feedback about? Why do we need peer feedback? How do individuals as well as teams benefit from it? Expect a certain amount of resistance since the idea of honest feedback often raises some concerns if not fears.
  • Do not overwhelm people: What kind of feedback experiment would spark the curiosity of your team? What would be interesting enough to try out? Where should you set the bar to provide the right balance of confidence and challenge? Keep in mind  that even if you generate some interest, you may have to nudge people a bit to get them out of their comfort zones.
  • Agree on a series of learning opportunities by using various methods: How can you foster the willingness to regularly practice peer feedback? To repeat some experiments to check whether or not it supports improvement? Do not invest in too much upfront planning or work design, make it an evolutionary change experience.
  • Show discipline in evaluating individual progress as well as methodological effectiveness: How do you regularly inspect and adapt your experience?: How to see the longer term effect of peer feedback? When to change methods to ensure a fresh experience? Once again, each peer acts as a role model by showing the behaviors s/he wants to encourage.

Summary

Feedback is an essential part of any lean or agile development. This holds for the technical level as well as for your work management system. This article advocates 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, the three articles of the series present a total of nine 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. This final article also provides some recommendations how to get started and going in order to make peer feedback a driver of continuous improvement rather than a one-hit wonder.

Thanks to MareenDöring, Sabine Eybl, GregorKerlinger and Ben Linders for their input and feedback.

References

  1. Kaltenecker, Siegfried, Myllerup Bent 2011, “Agile and Systemic Coaching”, https://www.scrumalliance.org/community/articles/2011/may/agile-systemic-coaching
  2. Kaltenecker, Siegfried 2015, Leading Self-Organising Teams. Workbook for Lean and Agile Professionals. Download for free.
  3. Leopold Klaus, Kaltenecker, Siegfried 2015, Kanban Change Leadership. Creating a culture of continuous improvement. Wiley
  4. Linders, Ben 2014 “Getting Feedback with the Perfection Game“.
  5. Rother, Mike, 2009. Toyota Kata.Managing People for Improvement, Adaptivness, and Superior Results. 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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