Category: Feedback

The Gift of Feedback (in a Booklet)

Receiving timely relevant feedback is an important element of how people grow. Sports coaches do not wait until the new year starts to start giving feedback to sportspeople, so why should people working in organisations wait until their annual review to receive feedback? Leaders are responsible for creating the right atmosphere for feedback, and to ensure that individuals receive useful feedback that helps them amplify their effectiveness.

I have given many talks on the topic and written a number of articles on this topic to help you.

However today, I want to share some brilliant work from some colleagues of mine, Karen Willis and Sara Michelazzo (@saramichelazzo) who have put together a printable guide to help people collect feedback and to help structure witting effective feedback for others.

Feedback Booklet

The booklet is intended to be printed in an A4 format, and I personally love the hand-drawn style. You can download the current version of the booklet here. Use this booklet to collect effective feedback more often, and share this booklet to help others benefit too.

5 tips for using Retrospectives as a tool for dissent

I recently shared this article on twitter from HBR, True Leaders Believe Dissent is an Obligation – the spirit of which I wholeheartedly agree. Effective leaders should not be surrounding themselves with yes-people because you need a diverse set of opinions, perspectives, skills and experiences to effectively problem solve. You can read more about How Diversity Makes Us Smarter, Research on how a Diverse group is the best solution for problem-solving tasks and Kellogs’ perspectives on Better Decisions Through Diversity.

Celebrate Dissent Photo
Photo from Vipez’s Flickr photostream

A challenge with many leaders is creating the right environment to allow dissent. I draw upon Retrospectives as a useful tool and here are some tips if you are a leader looking to use it effectively.

  1. Be clear about your motives – I can see some types of leaders who want to use retrospectives as a way to get to blame (which is definitely not the point). It helps to be explicit upfront about what you expect from people and to let people know if there will be consequences. If people feel like retrospectives are being used to “find dirt” or for blame, people will refuse to actively participate in future sessions or simply lie.
  2. Find an independent facilitator – I address a number of the trade-offs of an independent facilitator in The Retrospective Handbook and when you’re a leader running a session, there will be times you will want to participate. Playing dual roles (participant + facilitator) can be really confusing for those simply participating, so I recommend at least starting retrospectives with an independent facilitator.
  3. Allows others to talk first – Leaders often come with a level of explicit or implicit level of authority. Different cultures treat authority differently and it pays for a leader to be aware of the significance that is automatically added to your words by holding back and allowing others to speak. Focus on listening first and foremost, and ask clarifying questions rather than being the first to put your opinion on the table.
  4. Pick a topic that affects all participants – When choosing participants, make sure that the topic is relevant and that everyone can contribute different perspectives for. Although outside opinions about a particular topic are often welcomed, retrospectives are best when people can share their experiences. If, as a leader, you are gathering a group of people who don’t regularly work together around a common topic, reconsider if a focused retrospective is a good solution.
  5. Keep an open mind – There is no point in gathering a group of people if the leader is going to follow through on an action they thought of previously to a retrospective. Consider scheduling a retrospective early on, very focused on information gathering and generating insights as a first part, and then a second part with a smaller, focused group on the next steps. By having time to digest the new information, you may find you end up with very different solutions than what you first had in mind.

When used well, retrospectives can create a safe space to invite people to dissent and create an ongoing culture of challenging the status quo.

We can do better

I’m proud that many people are actively addresing diversity issues. Research shows that diversity leads to better problem solving and often, more creative solutions. Unfortunately the results of history lead us to where we are today, but we can always do better. I’m proud to be part of ThoughtWorks, where we are also trying to do our part to address diversity issues, and our work was recently recognised as a great company for Women in Tech. And yes, I do realise that diversity goes beyond just gender diversity.

As a fairly regular conference speaker this year, I have been disappointed by some of the actions of both conference organisers and speakers that have been, in my opinion, rather unhelpful.

At a conference speaker’s dinner earlier in the year, the topic of diversity came up where someone calculated that only 4 out of almost 60 speakers were women. I was truly disappointed when one of the conference organisers responded with, “That’s just the industry ratio isn’t it? It’s just too hard to find women speakers.” Of course not all conference organisers have this attitude, such as The Lead Dev conference which ended up with 50% women:men speaker ratio or like Flowcon which achieved a >40% ratio women:men as well. Jez Humble writes about his experiences achieving this goal (recommended reading for conference organisers).

At another conference, I saw a slide tweeted from a talk that looked like this below (Note: I’ve found the original and applied my own label to the slide)

Bad slide of stereotypes

My first thoughts went something like: “Why do all the developers look like men and why do all the testers look like women?” I was glad to see some other tweets mention this, which I’m hoping that the speaker saw.

We all have responsibilities when we speak

I believe that if you hold talks at a conference, you have a responsibility to stop reinforcing stereotypes, and start doing something, even if it’s a little thing like removing gendered stereotypes. Be aware of the imagery that you use, and avoid words that might reinforce minority groups feeling even more like a minority in tech. If you don’t know where to start, think about taking some training about what the key issues are.

What you can do if you’re a speaker

As a speaker you can:

  • Review your slides for stereotypes and see if you can use alternative imagery to get your message across.
  • Find someone who can give you feedback on words you say (I am still trying to train myself out of using the “guys” word when I mean people and everyone).
  • Give your time (mentoring, advice and encouragement) to people who stand out as different so they can act like role models in the future.
  • Give feedback to conferences and other speakers when you see something that’s inappropriate. More likely than not, people are more unaware of what other message people might see/hear, and a good presenter will care about getting their real message across more effectively.

What to do if you’re a conference organiser

I’ve seen many great practices that conferences use to support diversity. These include:

One thing that I have yet to experience, but would like as a speaker is a review service where I could send some version of slides/notes (there is always tweaking) and get some feedback about whether the imagery/words or message I intend to use might make the minorities feel even more like a minority.

Panel for Tech Leads: “Navigating Difficult Situations”

I recently moderated a panel in our London ThoughtWorks office aimed at developers leading technnical teams as a follow up from the Lead Developer conference.

Leading development teams can be a challenging prospect. Balancing the needs of the business with those of your team requires a number of different skills and these situations are often very difficult to prepare for.

This panel session will provide a platform for a group of tech leads to come together and share their experiences, insights and advice around the topic of managing conflict and overcoming difficult moments within your teams.

Our panelists are all at various stages of their own leadership journeys and will be offering a range of perspectives and viewpoints to help you on your way.

Tech Lead Panellists

The panelists shared their experiences around situations like:

  • Having a tough conversation with a team member or customer;
  • Sharing how they have dealt with overtime (weekends, later work);
  • How they resolved a technical disagreement within a team; and
  • Handling a particularly aggressive person, or being aggressively threatened;

The audience also threw in a few questions like:

  • Dealing with office politics;
  • Finding access to key influencers/stakeholders;
  • Where you draw the line with a person on a team; and
  • Dealing with a technical stakeholder who is too involved, because they seem to have too much time;

We also had some great sound bites in relation to the topics being discussed.

To deal with angry people:

Be the adult – Laura Paterson

or just:

Let them vent – Jon Barber

Managing stakeholders is hard, and you sometimes need to take a stance:

It’s easy to say no – Priya Samuel

People in teams need feedback to both strengthen confidence and improve effectiveness. However:

Frank feedback is really hard. Give the person a chance. – Mike Gardiner

Lastly when thinking about people and teams:

Have empathy. Pairing is scary & exhausting – Kornelis (Korny) Sietsma

I’d like to thank Amy Lynch for organising the panel, Laura Jenkins and Adriana Katrandzhieva for helping with the logistics, all the panelists who contributed their experiences and shared their stories (Priya Samuel, Kornelis (Korny) Sietsma, Mike Gardiner, Laura Paterson and Jon Barber) and all the people who turned up for the evening.

Two topics best avoided in retrospectives

When I introduce people to retrospectives I often am asked what topics should be covered and not covered as part of this. When I have asked this question of other people, I hear answers like “Everything should be open for discussion” or “No topic is ever taboo.”

Although I agree with the sentiment, I strongly disagree with the statements.

Photo from coltera's Flickr stream under the Creative Commons licence
Photo from coltera’s flickr stream under the Creative Commons licence

Yes, being able to discuss most topics openly as a team, particularly where there are different views is a sign of a healthy, collaborative team. Even then, I still believe there are two topics that teams should watch out for because I feel they do more harm than good.

1. Interpersonal conflict

Imagine yourself working with a team where two people suddenly start shouting at each other. You hear voices continue to escalate, maybe even watching someone storm off. An uncomfortable silence descends in the open team space as no one is quite sure how to react. Is this something you discuss as a team in the next retrospective?

Perhaps if the issue involves the entire team. When it involves two people where tension escalated too quickly over a single topic, it is more likely you need mediation and a facilitated conversation. A person wearing a leadership role (e.g. Project Manager, Line Manager, or Tech Lead) may be an ideal person with context to do that, but it may also be better to find a mediator who can get to each person’s interests and to find a way to both move forward and to start healing the relationship.

Although it will be impossible to ignore the topic in a retrospective, the focus should be on team expectations about behaviour, or identify ways the team can support each other better. It is unlikely you will solve, as a group, the conflict between the two people without making each of them very uncomfortable and unsafe.

behavioural issues for a single person

Just as you wouldn’t isolate two people and make the entire retrospective about them, teams must not “gang up” on a single person unless they feel safe to discuss the topic. If the entire team complains about what a single person is doing, the person is likely to feel targeted, isolated and potentially humiliated in front of their peers.

It may still be important to highlight issues impacting the entire team, but be careful that a retrospective does not become a witchhunt.

Where repeated, consistent behaviour needs to be addressed, a better solution is targeted one-to-one feedback.

Conclusion

Retrospectives are important practices for agile teams, but it is not a tool that will solve all problems. Retrospectives work well with other tools that offer better, more focused conversations for smaller groups such as mediation and one-to-one feedback.

What topics do you think should be avoided in retrospectives? Please leave a comment with your thoughts.

Making Change Stick

A gym instructor told me yesterday that it was the day that most people statistically give up their new year’s resolution. Whether or not it is true, it got me thinking about what works when changing behaviours, whether individually or in an organizational context. What follows are some of my favourite approaches to making change stick.

1. Keep it small

In my experience, the bigger the change is, the more likely it is to fail because old habits come back, or the change hits too many barriers. A more significant change means less chance of success because it requires more time, energy and motivation to accomplish – all of which can easily run out.

Five years ago I was unsure about whether I could be a full-time vegetarian. Rather than commit to being full-time vegetarian, I kept it small by deciding to trial it for an entire month. In this time, I made myself experience as many activities I enjoy in the trial period (eating out, traveling) to work out being full-time would not suit me. In the end, I decided a 2-day per week vegetarian habit would work instead.

If you want to make a change, find smaller steps towards the end goal.

2. Build on an existing habit

I have a friend who gave up smoking but took up a running habit instead. After talking to him, I realised a lot of his success was described in the book, “The Power of Habit.” In this book, they describe how we often build responses to stimulus as rewards, which eventually becomes a habit. Our first approach to change is to simply stop the response but habits make that difficult because they are automatic.

The book explains that stopping the habitual response hard. However replacing the response with a different response can be a lot easier.

3. Keep it social

One of the many reasons fitness websites like Runkeeper want to connect you with your friends it that social pressure and acknowledgement from family and friends is a really powerful mechanism for instituting change. Websites like Runkeeper fail because they treat every connection the same, even though we have different types of relationships with people. Acts such as making a commitment to a group of close friends, or training regularly with the same group of people is great motivation to maintain a new change.

I saw this most recently when a bunch of friends and I signed up for a Tough Mudder. Before the event, a friend of mine didn’t regularly train. They knew the event would be a challenge so hired a personal trainer and went regularly several times a week. In the course of six months until the event, they built up the fitness, strength and skills required by Tough Mudder and finished it brilliantly.

4. Visualise the end state

One of the wonders of our human mind is our ability to influence the future simply through belief (or what’s commonly known as the Placebo Effect). In organisations and in personal coaching, I find the Futurespectives activities of the most powerful practices because it helps people imagine what the future state could be like.

All too often people fail at change because they focus too much on what is blocking them rather than focusing on what they can do to move towards this end state. An exercise I know used by a few friends is the Letter from the Future to visualise their desired end states.

5. Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate

With my experiences using appreciative inquiry, I have found that celebrating the small achievements for what is working is often a more powerful motivating factor than focusing on what didn’t work. It leads into a positively reinforcing loop that can establish new habits and make lasting change as pictured in the diagram below.

Cycle of celebration improving motivation

Conclusion

There are many other opportunities to make change stick I find that these five steps are the techniques and practices I draw upon the most. Books I have found useful on this topic include

What do you do to make change stick?

5 Tips for Accelerated Learning

I spent all of last year in Berlin, where I focused on learning the German language. After years learning different programming languages like Java, C#, Javascript and Ruby (not to mention all the tools, frameworks and libraries) and several years training and teaching I figured I could “eat my own dog food” and apply what I learnt about learning to a real language.

Enter to Learn stone sign
Stone sign: Enter to Learn. Image take from flikr under the Creative Commons licence.

Since that year, I talked to numerous people impressed that I can speak fluent German after living in Berlin. They often ask me, how did I found my experience. This post is a good summary of what I found myself repeating. Firstly, if you really, really want to learn German, Berlin is probably not the best place since there are so many foreigners living there and the level of spoken English is ridiculously high. You can easily fall into hanging out with the English-speaking crowd, enjoy the city, and fail to pick up more than rudimentary German.

Although I have very specific tips for learning the German language, this is more focused on what helped me learn the most that I think applies to any subject.

1. Find different teachers

At the start of the year, I spent the first three months doing an immersive language course at the Goethe Institute. Over the two classes, I experienced four different teachers, each with their own style and emphasis on what is important to learn. Although I wished that I had spent less time with one of the teachers, I found their point of view was sometimes useful. Each teacher focused on different aspects and it made my learning all that richer.

Over the rest of the year, I found other avenues to teach me, guide me and give the feedback I needed to grow. If I had stuck with a single teacher, I would have missed out on a number of other valuable perspectives.

2. Have a goal, and keep focused on it

Unlike many European people, I was never bilingual as a child. Moving to England from Australia, I came to appreciate how useful a second language was by meeting many other bilingual people. Although I learned Japanese in school, I believe it is more important to have the ability to use it.As they say:

Use it, or lose it.

A whole year to learn a language was a once in a lifetime opportunity and my goal was to be fluent by the end of the year. I had a whole bunch of other personal reasons to learn German, but figured many things came into alignment and I would make the most of this opportunity.

I reminded myself throughout the year about my goal, and why it was important to me, and it helped me keep focus on the learning. It helped me in particular when the going got tough, and it will get tough!

3. Celebrate progress

After a year passed by, I met with some of my colleagues again who were impressed that I could now speak with them fluently in their native tongue. Although it’s easy to celebrate that final result, there were many times along the way that I wanted to give up because it was hard, and I felt frustrated that I felt like I wasn’t learning as fast I wanted to.

I was sharing a flat with a German, who knew that I was wanting to speak fluent German. Although he could speak English very well, he spoke only to me in German even if it would have been easier for him to communicate in English. I remember coming home one day, exasperatedly asking, “Can we just speak in English?!” His answer, “Nein!” (No, in German).

Although there were bad days, there were also good days and I made sure to sit back and acknowledge these small milestones, such as watching my first film in German with subtitles (and understanding most of it), completing my first German novel, and going to the Town Hall to register myself without speaking a word of English!

Each small step moves you towards your final goal, and celebrating progress will help you overcome the learning hurdles you experience along the way.

4. Vary your learning activities

One problem with a long-term learning goal, is that you will get bored and distracted. At the start of my year, I was naturally doing a lot of grammatical textbook exercises which was useful for the classroom. However I couldn’t see myself continuing to do just these exercises for the rest of the year. I wanted other ways to learn but would help me keep engaged. Therefore I combined learning German with other activities that I enjoyed, such as meeting with people (the German Stammtisch the language school organised was a good one), watching movies and reading books I liked in German (thanks library!), meeting with a tandem partner, and listening to the radio.

A friend gave me the book, “111 Orte in Berlin, die man gesehen haben muss” which roughly translates to, “111 must see places in Berlin.” The book has two pages for each place, one with a short description and the other with a picture and was perfect for dipping in and out. I could read about a place I wanted to visit, and because I lived in Berlin, could go and see what it was talking about. At the same time, it helped me deepen my vocabulary and help me experience the unique experiences Berlin had of offer.

Later in the year, I spent some time traveling around in Germany, where I did a number of tours in German. Each of these experiences kept the learning alive for me and I never grew bored about “learning German” because I was doing it at the same time as I was doing other activities I was enjoying.

5. Accept you’ll never be perfect

Early on in my career, I discovered the idea of the Beginner’s Mind (Shoshin). For me, part of this accepts that I do not, and cannot know everything and that means there are new things to learn. In learning German, I found that my vocabulary will never be as rich as it is in English because there are situations I have never found myself in.

A good example of this was talking to a friend of mine when we first worked in a German-speaking office. She told me this story:

Although I studied German at school and was very fluent, I was shocked the first time that I was running a project kickoff for a German-speaking client. Not only was I learning new German words for the domain (transportation) but I was also learning new German words for technology terms I had taken for granted.

Our experiences shape who we are, and we cannot possibly be experts at everything, and that’s perfectly fine. I found it was more productive to focus on getting better than worrying about how close to mastery I was.

Conclusion

After years of coaching, teaching and training technology, I have many techniques that I consider useful as learning strategies. I found last year was a great opportunity to try applying some of them to a completely different skill and see how far I could go. Happily, it seemed to have worked.

I hope you found this article useful and that you will find these tips above useful. In summary, try to:

  1. Find different teachers
  2. Have a goal, and keep focused on it
  3. Celebrate progress
  4. Vary your learning activities
  5. Accept you’ll never be perfect

What other learning strategies do you find work for you?

Feedback for Conference Presenters

After presenting at the recent Quarterly Technology Briefing in London, Manchester and Hamburg I had a very good question from one of my colleagues about what feedback I found most valuable.

Our feedback forms were quite short with two quantitative questions (out of a 1-5 scale), and three or four free text questions. Although the quantitative questions gave me a good indication of general feedback from the audience, it is not specific enough for me to really understand what things to do more of, or things to do less of. It reminds me of a traffic light system some conferences used (red, yellow, green) for evaluating conference presenters. Fun, quick, but entirely useless to know why people put numbers down.

Although the free text answers to feedback forms take more time to read, the feedback is much more helpful, particularly around getting an understanding of where expectations for a session matched or didn’t match, and useful suggestions or ideas to focus more on. I can take this feedback and actually do something about it for a different presentation.

For conference organisers, or if you’re putting feedback forms together for your own workshop, please don’t leave feedback as a binary, or based solely on numbers. Although there are advantages to getting quicker to an evaluation, you don’t really know why people rated something well or not well. Ask open ended questions and provide these to speakers unedited and raw.

I think if conferences really wanted speakers to get better as well, I think having some peer presenters sit in a session and provide targeted feedback would be even better. I could imagine something like this could focus solely on the mechanics and/or execution of the presentation and give timely, helpful feedback to improve the session and the presenter.

Writing feedback as a conversation with the recipient

We had a couple of people roll off our project recently. Even though we had been doing regularly feedback as a group, each person still wanted some written feedback to take with them to their next project. In writing down the feedback (and trying to collate all my thoughts from previous sessions) I found it was immensely useful to write the feedback as if I was talking to the person.

In past occasions, for some reason, I wrote a lot of feedback as if someone else was going to read it. For example, “I worked with <Joe> and noticed… It had this impact…”

Rather than as if I was writing feedback for someone else, I tried to write the feedback as if I was talking to the person. Framed in the context of the person who will benefit from receiving the feedback, I think it really changed the way that it made me think about it. It really focused my attention on feedback that would really help the person grow – reinforcing those behaviours that they should continue doing, and bringing to attention those behaviours that continued to puzzle me, or bringing to attention those behaviours that might take much more time than a single project to develop.

I found that writing feedback as if I was talking to the person also helped me humanise and personalise a lot more of the feedback I wrote down. Why don’t you give it a go next time?