[SiH] Feature Article: Have You Tried Feedforward?

Success in Harmony

September 2007 – Vol. IV, Issue 9


Feature Article: Have You Tried Feedforward?

I had the opportunity to hear executive coach Marshall Goldsmith speak about using “Feedforward” instead of Feedback twice recently–the first time at the WABC 10th Anniversary International Conference, and the second time at the recent Inc. 500 virtual conference.

In both presentations, he used the same experiential exercise. He had everyone in the room pick one thing that they’d like to do better, then go around the room and ask as many people as possible if they had any ideas what they could to improve. The only acceptable response to the ideas shared was to write them down and say “thank you.” Then the other person would ask for ideas for their chosen goal, and after ideas had been shared both directions, they would each move on to the next person as quickly as possible. Because of the speed and simplicity of the exercise, as well as the focus on the future (“forward”) instead of the past (“back”), most participants responded “fun!” when asked to complete the sentence, “this exercise was…” In addition, the dynamic is very different because “feedforward” goes both ways–both people have things they’ve chosen to work on and both people give and get ideas.

In contrast, how do most of us experience feedback when we receive it? Probably, the last adjective we’d use to describe the experience is “fun.” Typically, feedback is focused on what is wrong and what needs to be fixed. Naturally, when asked by someone to face what we’re doing wrong, we tend to become defensive and we automatically begin thinking of our response or justification rather than truly listening to the feedback. Even strategies like the “sandwich method”–sandwiching negative feedback between two slices of positive feedback–can feel contrived and uncomfortable, or at worst, manipulative.

Take a look at how your organization handles feedback. On one end of the spectrum, some organizations avoid feedback altogether. Instead, water cooler talk and talking behind each other’s backs replaces open feedback. The organization is full of “undiscussables” and rarely is the accurate reason given for a firing or lack of promotion. Another less healthy culture of feedback is the “just tell it like it is” method. Individuals in the organization criticize each other openly without regard for how the other might feel or respond.

There is a place for feedback related to what happened in the past. When the relationship is built on trust, colleagues can have helpful, open discussions taking a look at patterns from the past, their results, and whether or not we are happy with the results we are getting. However, after that focus on the past, the focus shifts to the future–what results do we want, and what can we do differently to achieve that result? What resources and abilities do we have that will help us? How will we implement that and hold each other accountable to that new pattern?

In many organizations, individual feedback may be replaced in part by “feedforward.” Each person chooses one behavior to improve, gets as many ideas from as many different people as possible, and then processes the ideas. After the sharing of ideas, individuals can choose one idea that they will use to improve the one behavior they’ve chosen. A big key is limiting the focus to “one thing.” We are much more likely to succeed at one thing that we’re actively focusing on than when our attention is fractured.

Where can you begin to use the idea of “feedforward” in your life?

The Inc. 500 virtual conference recently posted the recordings of Marshall Goldsmith and the other speakers. To view Marshall’s presentation, go to http://events.unisfair.com/index.jsp?eid=102 and go to the “Main Hall” and the “Conference Hall.” In addition to the “feedforward” exercise, there are some other real gems in his hourlong presentation.

You can download a copy of Marshall’s own article describing the “Feedforward” process at http://marshallgoldsmithlibrary.com/html/marshall/resources.html.

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