The intersection of technology and leadership

Category: Feedback (Page 2 of 4)

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?

Long Feedback Loops

Almost five and a half years ago, one my first project in the UK, I built a constrained email tempting engine to be used by marketing folk with a small team of three other developers. I think we worked for about six to eight weeks to develop the entire application, including retrofitting its integrate its output with another system.

A year or two ago, we had some consultants return to the client who talked to one of the original developers who still worked for the same client. They spoke fondly of the good times he had on our team, and spoke proudly about the application we wrote. In the four years or so of constant use (they would revisit their emails at least once a month), the users apparently only ever reported one bug. He mentioned that bug (a special character in the email subject line) was also deprioritised from the original work we did. It was an enough fix and with test around it, was not a problem updating the system.

I certainly appreciated the feedback, particularly since you don’t always get to return to see the long term results of the work you do as a consultant, or even just as a developer.

Some of the great things I learned from that project.

Acceptance Test Driven Development is entirely possible
We worked hard to test drive this Swing based application from the start. It really changed the way that we designed the application and all of us learned a whole heap about understanding testable presentation patterns. It formed the basis of several talks and the knowledge, particularly the separation of concerns is entirely applicable to all sorts of other tools and interfaces such as javascript, or command line interfaces.

On a different note, coverage combining end to end acceptance test and unit tests meant we had 100% code coverage. It was never the goal, but interesting to see on this application it was entirely possible.

Never discourage people from trying new things
The organisation was rife with contractors. Not all of them entirely passionate. I love building great teams and the fact that everyone was learning, and saw things being delivered reignited people’s passions to do various things. I distinctly remember two events made possible by encouraging people to explore their passions and strengths.

One of the developers, interested in the User Experience side asked if he could do some user testing with the application. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but certainly encouraged him to do that. He did, what some people call Guerilla Usability Testing – grabbing someone who didn’t know anything about our application, and giving them a task list to complete as he watched them over the shoulder. Based on this study, we found out, to no surprise, the way we laid out the application didn’t make some of the tasks as easy as they could have been. We channeled this feedback into our interface and helped make life easier for its users.

The other event, a contractor, seemed to find his passion for developing usable software reignited. Everyone will know that swing applications aren’t the nicest things to look at. I remember coming in one morning to find that whole interface reskinned and redeveloped. It looked a whole load better than what you’d get with swing out of the box.

I found out much later that he had, by his own volition, worked a couple of extra hours one night because he wanted to add that extra polish and make the interface attractive to users. Awesome stuff that would never have happened without encouragement to do “the right thing”.

Involving real users
As a systems thinker, I know that the purpose of the project should have been an intermediate step. The real problem the organisation was a missing feedback loop from IT back into marketing. I knew that then, and I know that know, however being pragmatic and realistic, you can only do good things within your own sphere of influence. Trying to change how the entire marketing and IT department silos worked (or failed to work together) would take much more than the two or three months I was going to be there.

Fortunately, we had one person on our project who had worked for their company for a while and had a couple of good contacts in marketing. Whilst we couldn’t change the way projects spun up, we managed to get someone who was going to use our software down, early, and show them what we were building for them. More than that, they asked for somethings (that we could almost immediately turn around for them) and they were blown away that their feedback actually mattered and made a difference.

I appreciate good projects, and where possible, create those environments for others to thrive in. There are many good things to carry forward in these things and can only hope others benefit from it as well.

Thoughts On Øredev

Last week Sweden’s Malmö hosted Øredev for the sixth time. I believe it attracted more than 1400 people, all with varying backgrounds and interests. Unsurprisingly, the majority of attendees turned out to be Swedish and Danish people (with Malmö very well connected to Denmark via their famous Baltic Ocean crossing train).

The Cultural Experiences
Being held in Sweden, the organising committee did well to treat us to some cultural delights including the Swedish sauna-Baltic Ocean run followed up by a delicious traditional fish meal). One of the organising members even welcomed us into their home for drinks before the speakers’ dinner where Glögg continued to keep the cold at bay. The difference of soaking raisins and almonds really surprised me. Malmö’s deputy mayor then welcomed us at their majestic townhall where all the speakers unanimously marvelled at the decadent surroundings. The meal stayed true to the region with first, a regional speciality, black soup (and yes, like black pudding, it has a very special ingredient) before following that up with a hearty roast goose meal and a spiced apple pudding for dessert.

Logistics and Organisation
The organisers impressed me with how smoothly the entire conference ran. Malmö’s Slagthuset (slaughterhouse) hosted the conference for the first time and although not all the spaces turned out ideal (with small walkways between some major rooms), I think it contributed to the friendliness and openness I discovered.

The organisers also did a fabulous job responding to attendee’s needs. For example, on Monday they moved a number of tutorials to warmer rooms after realising the strong draughts let in by workmen who still needed to complete their work. Another example is when they quickly disabled the authentication on the wi-fi when it proved to be another barrier to being connected. Unfortunately the wi-fi turned out to be a little bit flakier throughout the conference.

I also really enjoyed the evening entertainment that flowed into the venue rather than the “move to another location and lose people” approach several other conferences do. This helped to keep the conversation flowing (and we all love our flow!).

Øredev offered a huge variety of interesting topics with tracks covering mainstream languages such as Java/.Net, NoSQL, Agile & Lean, Collaboration, Patterns, Smart Phones and Architecture with lots of really interesting topics. I’d keep an eye out for their website and trawl the twitterverse (#oredev) for the interesting discussions.

The keynote presenters also turned out really well.

Dr Jeffrey Norris presented what he thought as agile values leading to mission critical success at NASA (Vision, Risk and Commitment) demonstrating through a “wow” 3D demonstration using the ARToolKit. He used the stories of famous inventors, particularly the rise of Graham Alexander Bell to emphasis these elements very effectively.

I saw John Seddon a few months ago and although I’d heard him present pretty much the same talk, appreciated his message was an important one that more people really needed to hear. I think there is great value in spreading his emphasis on holistic system thinking even further in the work that we do. Entertaining and very British, Seddon completed his keynote without leaning on any slides and to a very positive reaction from the audience.

I missed Henrik Kniberg‘s keynote so can’t really comment.

The final keynote came from Atari Corporation geek legend Nolan Bushnell envisaging what the next key software projects would be in the future. I think everyone enjoyed the talk simply because it was Nolan though I think wasn’t as executed as professionally as it could have been.

People to meet
One of the really great parts of Øredev was all the people around you. As one person put it, you could be talking to a person and then suddenly realise that they created X (where X = language, framework, tool, etc) or someone who wrote a lot of the blog entries that you’ve been reading. I think that the conference does a wonderful job of creating a really relaxed atmosphere for people to converse and the speakers are all really approachable and involved in all of the sessions as well.

I have to admit I also really appreciated the opportunities to connect to a number of fellow ThoughtWorks colleagues (both past and present) who I’d either not got a chance to meet, or hadn’t seen for a very long time. This is one of the consequences of working for a global consultancy – you get to communicate and build relationships for a distance yet rarely get to meet people face to face.

iPad observations
One huge point worth noting was the large role that the iPad played during this developer conference. Obviously, being fairly geeky I hadn’t expected so many of them yet it proved to be one of the best devices for capturing notes & particularly useful for reading and contributing tweets. Laptops lose out on both portability and, on average, a very so-so battery life.

Reading tweets to view session using the native iPad twitter client also worked really well without having to use the keyboard or mouse – this is where gestures and multi touch really shined.

My session
Chris Hedgate, organiser for the track on collaboration invited me to speak. Titled, “Tightening the Feedback Loop“, I spoke about how to give and receive more effective interpersonal feedback. I had some great tweets in response and some great feedback on the presentation (meta!) I’m encouraged that more people will be better equipped in their professional and personal life after attending.

I highly recommend presenting and/or attending Oredev. You’ll meet a whole heap of really interesting people and, no doubt, come away with at least an idea or two.

Upcoming Speaking Engagements

I’ve been terribly busy the last couple of months and it reflects by the lack of any blog posts. So sorry for that. Here’s a short post talking about upcoming speaking engagements.

My first one is for the Collaboration Track at Orevdev in Malmo next week. Titled, “Tightening the Feedback Loop”, I’ll be exploring how interpersonal feedback can be so much more effective. The programme for Oredev looks amazing so I look forward to contributing and participating in the conference.

The second speaking engagement is for the Skills Matter Agile, Lean & Kanban Exchange talking on their “Leadership, Value and Visibility Track”. I’ll be covering, “Making ‘Management’ Work with Agile.

Build the testing pipeline at ACCU 2010

Just a short note that I’ll be running a workshop for attendees of ACCU2010 this Saturday on understanding how to get the balance right for the testing aspect to build pipelines. We’ll explore the tradeoffs and conscious decisions we should be aware of when putting these into our feedback loops.

Slide deck to come, though it’s a classic me-style, participatory workshop (you learn more by doing!) so slides won’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense by themselves.

Giving feedback to defensive people

A few people have arrived at this blog looking for the terms, “Giving feedback to defensive people.” Before focusing on the fact that the recipient may be “defensive”, I’ll refer to you to several different posts outlining some principles of giving effective feedback. Read them before continuing on.

Firstly, if you’re giving feedback to a person, ensure that you follow the principles of effective feedback.

  1. You intend on strengthening their confidence; or
  2. You’d like to help them improve their effectiveness

Many times I’ve heard several people give feedback and it is not in the spirit of either of these. Often, they give feedback with the intent of improving their own effectiveness, not necessarily the recipient. For a variety of different reasons, it’s easy for me to improve my own effectiveness by asking people what to do – something that is selfishly easy. It takes more courage and effort, putting yourself in the recipient’s shoes to help them out.

Photo taken from Noii’s Flickr stream under the Creative Commons licence

If someone comes across as “defensive”, I’d ask yourself what circumstances they could possibly be under that make them so. Perhaps they have other things on their mind, and are preoccupied in a manner that makes it difficult to listen to feedback. The solution? Ask them if now is a good time to give them feedback.

Maybe the recipient associates “feedback” with “criticism” due to others “giving them feedback” ineffectively, fuelling a cycle of defensiveness. The solution? I find it easy to spend a quick minute or two describing the basic principles of feedback, and help them understand you are here with the true intent of either strengthening their confidence or improving their effectiveness. I like to emphasis it should be a conversation and that I will try to be a specific as possible, but encourage questioning if the recipient needs clarity.

Another reason the recipient may be defensive is for fear of being judged as a person. The solution? Focus on behaviours and impact, rather than attempting to describe what you think their motives are. This doesn’t mean you cannot have an opinion, however it should be clearly stated about how you interpret the impact, not on how you interpret them as a person.

They may truly believe that whatever situation you describe, they disagree with. The solution? Start with the model I describe here, seeking agreement for observations, then impact, before thinking about recommendations. Any disagreement on the early stages will inevitably lead to disagreements on future stages.

Finally, as a person giving feedback, you need to accept the recipient may choose to acknowledge, disagree with or do nothing with the feedback you gift to them. I remember one incident, quite recently, where a colleague gave me feedback with recommendations. We talked about it, both understanding the variety of forces unbeknownst to each other. At the end of the conversation, I concluded I would have repeated the same behaviour in the same circumstances, however that’s when the feedback donor got frustrated.

My lesson: if you’re giving feedback to someone, be prepared to say, “I respect that we disagree on something, and thank you for being prepared to listen.”

A Guide to Receiving Feedback Part VI: It’s Okay To Disagree

DisagreeingAs a person receiving feedback, you may find you can’t understand what the other person is trying to tell you. You’ve already put significant effort shaping effective feedback out of whatever it is the donor gives you. First you focused on fact finding, uncovering your specific behaviours. You then asked some questions identifying how the donor interpreted the impact.

Remembering that effective feedback is aimed at helping you, the recipient, Strengthen Confidence or Improve Effectiveness, you may find, at some point, the donor’s feedback isn’t doing either. Perhaps you don’t remember your own behaviours, or you see the impact being different. It’s your responsiblitiy as a recipient to seek actions that help you Strengthen Confidence or Improve Effectiveness and if you cannot find out how changing your behaviour will help you do either, then it’s okay to disagree.

Make sure you thank the donor for their feedback, helping them understand how and why you the feedback doesn’t Strengthen Your Confidence or Improve Your Effectiveness. Only when you’ve done everything you possibly could to uncover effective feedback, then is it okay to disagree with the feedback.

Don’t feel like you have to respond and agree with every part of feedback. At some point, interpretation of impact requires a matter of perception, and people often remember facts quite differently from what actually happenned.

The image above is taken from Twilsoncom’s flickr stream under the creative commons licence

A Guide to Receiving Feedback Part V: Thank Them For Their Feedback

Give ThanksWhen someone gives you feedback (even if it’s not wrapped completely effectively), it’s important to thank them for taking the time to do so. As long as you uncover the important elements of effective feedback together, and agree on actions helping you Strengthen Confidence and Improve Effectiveness, then you personally benefited from the situation.

Avoid the need to justify every single part of the feedback and start with a “Thanks!” Acknowledging the person trying to help you goes a long way. Affirming the value of each piece of feedback helps the donor feel at ease. It assures them you are listening and aren’t reacting badly to their feedback. Creating this safe environment for the donor lets them focus on giving effective feedback, boosting their confidence as they continue with the rest of the feedback.

There’s no need to go all gushy and shower them with gratitudes. Start simple, using short positive affirmations, indicating to the donor you are listening to their feedback focusing on what it is they are trying to tell you.

Effective feedback takes time to give, and as a recipient you should thank the donor for taking their time to help you strengthen your confidence or improve your effectiveness.

Picture above comes from Fave’s Flickr stream under the Creative Commons licence

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