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Feedback and Feedfoward: Best of Both Worlds

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Feedback, is a situation in which an output from an event of the past has a potential relevance in the future. Agile places a lot of importance on soliciting and providing feedback with every step in order to build a quality product. While the benefits of good feedback are immense, Tom Ferguson suggested that teams could also start looking as feedforward as a valuable tool. Feedforward is to give the team, suggestions for the future and provide help in terms of setting future direction.

Dietrich Kappe placed a high importance on feedback loops when he suggested that,

The first three commandments of Agile software development are:

  1. Feedback loop
  2. Feedback loop
  3. Feedback loop

He mentioned that right from pair programming to releasing the software early and often, there is enough feedback built into the entire process.

Michael Hugos quoted a white paper by Glenn Vanderburg, which divided the feedback loops into three levels. The innermost level consisted of lower level practices such as pair programming; coding standards; unit and function testing; refactoring; simple design; and the 40-hour week. Just above this level are some larger level practices such as system metaphor; continuous integration; on-site customer; collective ownership; acceptance testing; planning game; and short releases. These provide feedback in terms of the direction the Agile project should follow. Just above these are the highest level of feedback loops which consists of project management activities used for monitoring and managing Agile projects. These help the stakeholders to know if the project is meeting expectations or not.

Zachary Spencer further divided the feedback into active and passive. He mentioned the benefits of active feedback over passive and encouraged all Agile teams to solicit active feedback. According to him,

There are two ways to gather feedback. You can either request feedback, which is active feedback; or you can observe what people do, passive feedback. Active and passive feedback are most useful in different situations. They have their own sets of pros and cons. However, both must be applied to make a truly informed decision.

On a different note, Tom Ferguson suggested that feedback is always focussed towards the past and in Agile projects there is a need to look forward due to constantly changing scenarios. He suggested,

Part of the problem is the ‘back’ in feedback. Feedback tends to focus on past events. As such, it can be a limited and static affair. In projects, we cannot afford to be limited or static or to focus on the past. While we might hope to learn from the past, it’s history and can’t be changed. So given these difficulties, why not try a little Feedforward?

Tom added that feedforward is a term coined by Marshal Goldsmith who suggested “Try Feedforward Instead of Feedback”. Tom mentioned the following reasons for doing a feedforward,

It comes from a much more positive perspective i.e. we are all in this together so let’s help each other out. This changes the whole dynamic of the relationship.

  1. It is not judgemental.
  2. The negative connotations of past failures are banished. There is no such thing as failure just Feedforward.
  3. It is much easier to deliver. People are less defensive when discussing future performance. Feedforward is taken less personally and provokes less resistance.
  4. It is faster. Dwelling on past events can consume a lot of time. It can be much quicker to suggest a few well thought out ideas for the future.
  5. The past is history, today is the present and tomorrow is an adventure. We can only change our behaviours from today onwards. What’s the point on focussing on past failures? Isn’t it much better to focus on the future we desire?
  6. Feedforward is much more aligned with coaching and is therefore better at building the kind of relationships needed to develop the team towards maximum performance.
  7. Most people actually like to be helped to improve their performance as this will ultimately make them more successful in their careers.
  8. Communication, the soul of successful projects, will be greatly enhanced.
  9. Why invest time and energy in something that we all hate?

According to Tom, feedfoward helps in bringing in a positive energy rather than the negative energy and the questioning nature brought by feedback. Doing feedforward also helps in building great relationship between the team members since nobody takes feedforward personally as they do with feedback.

Marshal Goldsmith suggested that,

The intent is not to imply that leaders should never give feedback or that performance appraisals should be abandoned. The intent is to show how feedforward can often be preferable to feedback in day-to-day interactions. Aside from its effectiveness and efficiency, feedforward can make life a lot more enjoyable. When managers are asked, “How did you feel the last time you received feedback?” their most common responses are very negative. When managers are asked how they felt after receiving feedforward, they reply that feedforward was not only useful, it was also fun!

Thus, both feedback and feedforward are valuable tools to steer the project and Agile teams in the right direction. The key lies in taking a wise decision on what suits the current situation and the working environment.

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