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Experimenting with Peer Feedback in Tech Teams

Feedback can be used to build trust in teams and help individuals improve their skills and grow in their craft. Emily Page and Doug Talbot shared their experiences from experimenting with peer feedback at Ocado Technology in Building Trust: Developing Peer-to-Peer Feedback in Tech Teams; a talk which they gave at Spark the Change London 2016.

InfoQ interviewed Emily Page, Organizational Catalyst at Ocado Technology, about what makes feedback so important, how values can drive feedback, their experience using a survey for feedback, what you can do to increase trust when asking for feedback, feedback maturity and techniques, and building a culture that fosters rich feedback.

InfoQ: What makes feedback so important for technical teams?

Emily Page: Firstly, it builds trust. It’s hard to give honest, constructive feedback without growing in trust. We believe that teams who trust each other will work more effectively, be more creative and solve problems in better ways. Some of our thinking in this regard has been influenced by Lencioni’s "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team". Secondly, we believe that peer feedback is one of the best ways for individuals to improve their skills and grow in their craft. This is great, not only because it helps them to be more effective in their roles but, perhaps more importantly, because an increased feeling of mastery is motivating, it’s fun to to see yourself improve and it’s even more fun to do that together with people you like and trust.

InfoQ: What are the values at Ocado Technology, and how do they drive feedback?

Page: Our values are: Collaboration, Craftsmanship, Trust, Autonomy and Learn Fast. All of these are reflected in some way in our quest for better, richer feedback. For example, trust encourages us to believe we are working towards the same goals and can help each other get there. In practice, this might look like an honest conversation between a dev team and their stakeholders about some friction that’s started appearing, or it may be a retrospective where we get honest about why we’ve had lots of support issues recently. Feedback (of one kind or another) is often the key to improving, whether that be in craftsmanship, collaboration, or any of our values.

InfoQ: At Spark the Change you talked about a survey that you used with a promotions round for people to give feedback and rate each other. Can you elaborate how that went?

Page: To be honest, it was a mixed result. We wanted to start the feedback process and to make promotions fairer, so we used a survey about our values (the same which has gradually evolved into the 360 feedback tool we currently use) and collected data from the peers of the candidates that was fed into the promotions round. Unfortunately, we didn’t communicate very well about the change in the process and we didn’t fully consider the perceptions of those taking part. For example, some felt it was very unfair that there had appeared to be a certain criteria for promotion, based purely on technical ability, and at the last minute we were asking questions about behaviours and values to their peers when they hadn’t realised these things would play a part in whether they would get the promotion. As a result, we actually lost some trust and got some tough but useful feedback ourselves!

InfoQ: Feedback systems can be gamed by people. Any suggestions on how to spot if it happens, and how to deal with it?

Page: Our learning has basically been to separate the feedback from external processes that would make you want to game it in the first place. That’s why, in our current model, 360 feedback isn’t linked to pay or promotions or anything other than giving an individual helpful feedback. Nobody sees the feedback but the person receiving the feedback (and anyone they chose to show it to), so our hope is that there is no reason to game it and people can see that the value really comes from honestly helping each other to grow.

InfoQ: Trust is important for feedback. Can you give some examples of things that you did to increase trust?

Page: We’ve tried to do a few things to improve trust; there are probably many more we could’ve tried too! Firstly, listening to and acting on the teams’ feedback about the values and how we describe them. We’ve worked quite hard to create a sense of shared ownership by moulding the statements that describe our values to what people resonate with. We did this by doing workshops with teams about the values. This hopefully does two things: it gives a message that "your opinion matters, we all have a say, this is not something that has been imposed on you", and the changes have hopefully made it much easier for people to relate to the values and genuinely feel that they agree with them and care that we all work that way. Secondly, we’ve emphasised to people that learning to give and receive feedback is a journey and that it’s ok to start small (e.g. by ticking a few boxes on a form!) and grow that trust gradually (e.g. by starting to talk about why you ticked those boxes) in a way that feels safe. We’ve also encouraged people to give and receive feedback crossing different levels of hierarchy, breaking down "them and us" thinking, getting managers to get feedback not just give it, and vice versa.

InfoQ: What are the different levels of maturity in feedback?

Page: To help explain our experience, we’ve defined some levels as:

  1. No feedback
  2. Delivery feedback, e.g. via retrospectives
  3. Behavioural and professional feedback, maybe via peer feedback and effective 1:1s
  4. Peer coaching, a world where we have sufficient trust and social connectedness to give rich, helpful, timely feedback, which is a two way discussion

InfoQ: How can you increase the feedback capabilities in an organisation?

Page: Start small, provide looks of encouragement and reassurance and, most importantly, practice. Practice yourself and create ways for others to practice in the least scary way possible.

InfoQ: Which feedback techniques are you using at the moment at Ocado Technology? What’s next?

Page: There’s a lot of different ways that people use feedback across the org, but a few of the key ways are the 360 surveys and people’s 1:1s. The surveys are designed to grow with the individuals’ comfort level, some just tick the checkboxes, other leave comments, others sit down together with the form to have a discussion around the values, and in general we see people can’t help but move along this progression as they find the richer feedback more useful.

InfoQ: What did you learn on your journey of applying feedback?

Page: My three biggest learnings were:

  1. It’s a long journey
  2. People are often more open than you might think
  3. Take away the "noise" of linking it to other things (promotions, pay, review etc.)

InfoQ: What can organizations do to build a culture that fosters rich feedback?

Page: Actually care about developing people and seeing them thrive, celebrate feedback loudly and then give people the support and tools they need to go on a journey.

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