Feedback sessions

Feedback sessions are a powerful tool for generating forward progress in any aspect of life. Even though I determined that iteration and feedback don’t work as a management tactic, I still think feedback sessions are important.

One simple benefit is that regular feedback sessions force you to take action. It almost doesn’t matter what form the session takes – it could be a daily status meeting, a one-on-one with your manager or mentor, or even a journal update that you write for yourself. You can keep yourself moving forward by regularly being evaluated on what you’ve done since your last session, and what needs to be done for the next one. I feel like I have drifted less since starting the five minute daily journal report suggested by Gerald Weinberg. There’s no implied consequence in failing to accomplish my daily goals, but getting into the habit of setting goals and recording whether I reached them has kept me more focused and disciplined.

Another benefit of regular feedback sessions is to confirm which direction is forward. One tactic I use in rapid prototyping situations where direction is unclear is to create a first draft just to have something to criticize. I don’t spend a lot of time on that first effort because I’m not trying to solve the problem with it. Its point is to elicit criticism, and by analyzing and understanding that criticism, I learn where I should be spending my design efforts and what the final goal is as of today. By getting early feedback, I don’t waste time polishing a solution that doesn’t fit the situation. Because I intentionally didn’t spend much time on that first attempt, I’m not personally invested in it, so I am open to exploring other options in response to the feedback I get. With regular feedback sessions, I can work with my teammates in shaping our work even as goals change.

To take a specific counter-example, I once worked at a company where a software team interviewed end-users about what they needed, drew up a specification and disappeared for six months to code to that specification. They came back with software that did exactly what was requested and found that circumstances had changed drastically over the six months since the specification was written, making their software useless. But because they had spent six months writing that software, they were emotionally invested in finding a use for it, so they spent another couple months trying to fit it into what the end-users were doing. If they had re-evaluated the specification every two weeks with the end-users, they could have evolved the software in response to the changing landscape and not wasted their time or the time of the end-users.

Feedback sessions also allow us to overcome our innate desire to keep doing what we have always done. We humans are subject to the consistency principle described by Cialdini, where once we say we’re doing something, we become more committed to doing it. We don’t want to find out that we made the wrong choice, so we either don’t evaluate the results, or interpret the evaluation results in order to support the choice we made. Feedback sessions allow us to verify that our choice is having the intended effect.

In an environment where feedback is valued, the review informs what will happen next. If everybody involved has agreed to take action in response to feedback, designing the evaluation process is in some sense more important than designing the work itself, because the evaluation process will determine how the work evolves. This is the idea behind test driven development, where the evaluation (test) is actually written before any work starts on the software itself. This is also why students always clamor to know the grading scheme at the beginning of the term – they plan their work by knowing how they will be evaluated. A good evaluation process creates a good end result.

Feedback sessions play a large part in why I currently function better as a team player. I do not yet have the self-discipline to re-evaluate myself with brutal honesty on a regular basis. I’m working on that with exercises like the daily Weinberg journal. I’ve also started setting up regular phone calls with trusted friends to talk about my life goals, and even though they are friends, I feel a responsibility to have made some progress towards those goals between calls. These feedback sessions are increasing my ability to move forward and execute, and I think that is a good thing.

P.S. I wrote this post on a bus on the way to Cornell. Yes, the bus has wi-fi. Luxury!

One thought on “Feedback sessions

  1. Test driven development: As a prototype engineer, working for an inventor, and also as a test lab supervisor, I saw a specific flaw in this aspect of production. It has to do with people getting too enamored with technology, and the loss of value of the skilled worker and their love of their work. Once you specify every aspect of a product, and detach the consumer from the producer, then there isn’t a feedback loop between the actual user and the designer anymore. Only the one which goes through the marketing and accounting chain. That means that if my pitchfork breaks off in someone’s ass, I can’t find the guy who made it and shove the remaining part up his nose for not paying attention to his work.
    The Japanese have gone far enough with feedback systems to let the machines and computers do the shoving for them. We are still struggling with 6sigma under the premise that it is something better than a good old-fashioned ass-whooping.

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