Provide Actionable Feedback

I’ve worked for many different companies in Silicon Valley over the last 20 or so years, and I’ve never really found anyone that had in place a feedback system that was truly actionable. Instead, most companies use some sort of yearly review system to let employees know how they’re doing. This process is often flawed in some way, arguably because many companies approach feedback the same way that you or I approach yearly tax forms — we have to deal with it about once a year, we’re not particularly excited about it, and once it’s over, good or bad, we mostly forget about it until the same time next year.

Typically, companies use feedback as a way to measure an employee, and a way to let the employee know where they stand. Once a year someone gathers up a bunch of feedback from coworkers, your boss then reviews this feedback, perhaps there’s one meeting with some discussion about areas to improve, and then maybe your year-end bonus or raise is somehow tied to the feedback you’ve received.

I believe this is a flawed approach for providing feedback. Some form of feedback should exist independently of any sort of employee evaluation or judgement model. Companies should encourage actionable feedback. Actionable feedback provides feedback with steps that the receiver can actually use to improve their skills. However, actionable feedback requires a commitment from both the receiver and the provider that both parties will not simply just receive and provide feedback, but rather that both parties will work together on a flexible plan that applies that feedback in some form. This requires more effort on everyone’s part, so I’ve written up this backgrounder and guide for anyone that might be interested in providing actionable feedback (for general guidelines on how to receive feedback, I recommend Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s book, “Thanks for the Feedback”).

When used correctly, actionable feedback promotes a culture of learning, trust, collaboration, growth, and can lead to mentoring.

Our Feedback Model Compared with Actionable Feedback

Most companies use a feedback model focused on employee evaluation. Companies need to measure employee A vs employee B in some way. However, a measurement of how well an employee is doing doesn’t really provide much guidance. It simply tells them they’re doing well, or they’re not doing well. Often, review feedback doesn’t even provide any insight into why the employee is doing well or not doing well. Maybe you’ve seen feedback that reads something like: “You’re doing a great job, just keep doing what you’re doing!” How is someone supposed to use this feedback to improve their skills and progress their career?

Other times, feedback might hint at some actual actions you could take, but you’re left to figure out what to do. Maybe you’ve seen feedback like this: “<Employee A> needs to learn to manage his/her time better.” Is the person providing the feedback suggesting that you need to work faster? Or perhaps they’re suggesting you need to improve your multitasking skills. Or maybe they’re just implying that you need to be in the office more often.

On top of this, feedback often comes at inopportune times. If feedback is delivered only once a year, it could come at a time where the receiver has already tried to do some of the things suggested in the feedback. Or, maybe it’s been long enough since the provider worked with the receiver that the provider has trouble remembering details about the work and therefore can’t provide very good suggestions.

If people want to use feedback to improve themselves and their careers, feedback needs to be more actionable. To be actionable, feedback needs to provide:

  • A timely delivery of the feedback. Provide feedback while it’s fresh in your mind, and at a time when the receiver is ready to take action on it.
  • Detailed observations about the employee’s work or work habits. What did you observe that the receiver did, that can serve as a starting point for feedback?
  • Reasons why you think the observed work habits might need to be adjusted. Remember that these are your opinions, and not some sort of personal judgement. These reasons might also need further discussion between you and the receiver.
  • Clear suggestions on some possible actions the employee can do to improve their skills, based on the observations. This is the most important part — try and come up with a plan with clear steps that the receiver can follow. And remember, these are suggestions — it’s up to the receiver to decide whether or not he/she wants to try these.
  • An explanation of how the employee might benefit if they try these actions. It might not be clear from just the detailed plan how the receiver will benefit in the end.
  • A promise that if the employee decides to try some of the suggestions, that there will be some sort of follow-up guidance for planning, implementing, or reviewing the next steps. If the receiver decided to follow through with your suggestions, he/she might need guidance, and the two of you might need to adjust the plan, based on how things proceed.

For the receiver of the actionable feedback, the process will look something like this:

  1. You get actionable feedback.
  2. You discuss with the feedback provide anything that is unclear.
  3. You use this feedback to determine some things to try, using the plan/suggestions provided in the feedback.
  4. You try things out, noting things that seem like improvements to the way you work, and things that don’t.
  5. You review the results with the person that provided the actionable feedback.
  6. Maybe if the results seem to be working, you iterate on trying things out and reviewing the results a couple more times.
  7. At a certain point, the parts of the actionable feedback that work for you should start to “stick”.

In some ways, actionable feedback is a bit like personalized, informal training.

A Simplified Example

Suppose you’re asked, by either an employee, or that employee’s boss, to provide feedback regarding how well that employee is doing. You’re in a lot of meetings with this employee, and one thing that strikes you is the employee is usually very quiet during meetings. As someone that likes to have his/her voice heard, you feel this is an area of possible improvement, so you decide to focus on this for your feedback.

Your first attempt is simply: “<Employee A> is too quiet.” That accurately describes everything right? Well, not really. There’s nothing clearly actionable in this feedback. When should the employee speak up? During meetings, in hallway conversations, or at other times? Should the employee talk more often, talk louder, or convince everyone else to be more quiet? Also, this statement sounds like a critique of the employee, rather than advice.

Your next attempt is: “<Employee A> never speaks up during meetings.” This is slightly more actionable than the previous example, but not much more so. The focus is now clearer and mentions speaking up during meetings, but it doesn’t explain why the employee should speak up more, nor does it explain some ways the employee could achieve this. Should the employee just start blurting things out as they immediately come to mind during meetings? Also, saying “never” implies that, again, this is more of an evaluation of the employee, and not a suggestion of something to try in the future.

Your next attempt is: “Our team values everyone’s input at meetings and I feel like <Employee A>’s input is not being heard. Providing ideas during meetings would improve visibility with the team.” This feedback starts to explain both a suggestion (provide ideas during meetings), and the basis for the suggestion (this will improve visibility in the team). In this simple example, this might be enough for an employee to take action at the next meeting, but maybe there’s something you’re not aware of that’s preventing the employee from speaking up. Maybe the employee could use some help to understand the best ways to raise ideas and objections during meetings.

Your next attempt is: “Our team values everyone’s input at meetings, and I’ve personally found it extremely valuable when people bring their ideas to everyone’s attention. I’ve noticed that <Employee A>’s input isn’t being heard compared to the rest of the team, and I think that if <Employee A> brought up more ideas during meetings, <Employee A>’s visibility in the team would greatly improve. At the next meeting I would be happy to work with <Employee A> to make sure his/her ideas and opinions are heard.” Better. This feedback provides both the rationale behind feedback, a suggested action to take, and an offer of help if the employee decides to take this action. This feedback is starting to become actionable.

Think about how many times you’ve received feedback similar to the last example, compared to feedback similar to the earlier examples. When you got feedback like “You need to do X”, has it been helpful? Or have you struggled with this sort of feedback, asking yourself questions like: Why should I do X? How should I start doing X? Does anyone realize that I’ve already tried to do X and I was unsuccessful?

Basic Guidelines for Actionable Feedback

Going back to the list of best practices for actionable feedback given earlier, you, the actionable feedback provider, should keep in mind some basic guidelines.

Understand when to provide actionable feedback

Don’t wait until the end of the year if you notice something that you think could be used as actionable feedback. Offer feedback when you think things are still fresh enough that everyone remembers what happened, but with enough time that everyone can actually step back and discuss the feedback. A good time might be after a project wraps up that you and the feedback receiver were working on.

Always check with the receiver first, however. Maybe they need a brief breather after the project and then they can focus on the suggestions from your feedback. Maybe they have a big time commitment coming up outside of work that you didn’t know about, that’s going to take up most of their energy for the next couple weeks. Also, be aware of possible confidentiality conflicts — maybe the receiver has confidential plans, such as a career change, that haven’t been widely communicated. Talking about actionable feedback plans might expose that information in a way the receiver isn’t comfortable with.

Describe what you noticed and explain why you noticed it

For the feedback details, start with what you observed. Remember that you’re providing feedback about the work, not the person. Specific details help. Saying “I noticed you’ve been missing a lot of deadlines” sounds a bit personal and vague, whereas “I noticed on feature Y of project X, you needed an extra week to complete the work” gives the receiver something to focus on.

For each observation, make sure you understand the receiver’s situation and ask questions if necessary. Get a feel for the receiver’s background and career goals if possible. Maybe your suggestion that they develop more leadership skills doesn’t really fit with their long-term goals.

Provide some brief explanation of why you noticed what you noticed. It may seem obvious to you, but perhaps it’s not obvious to the receiver. Also, clarifying the reasons behind why you’re bringing up an observation helps you think about things that could be done to adjust things, which will naturally lead you to the next step of creating an action plan.

Provide a feasible, measurable, action plan

At the heart of actionable feedback is the action plan. This doesn’t have to be a formal plan with a timeline. This could simply be suggestions described as a series of steps. Go with whatever both of you feel comfortable with (you might find yourself having to adjust the plan as needed). Do try and come up with the sort of plan you’d like to work with, since you might be helping the receiver actually go through the plan.

If possible, each step should be measurable in some way, so the receiver can easily determine if he/she is making progress and if the plan is improving his/her work.

Ideally, steps should also build on each other, if possible. It’s easier to follow the steps if they follow some sort of progression, rather than being a disconnected set of tasks.

As an example, suppose you’ve noticed that PersonA is having trouble explaining to the team what he/she is working on. Because of this, people on the team are making incorrect assumptions of what PersonA is working on, and end up overlapping on tasks. This is creating team inefficiency, and also frustration for PersonA. One thing you think might help is improving PersonA’s communication with the rest of the team.

There’s a lot of different things that could be suggested here, so you’ve decided to pick one approach that worked for you, and see what PersonA thinks. After describing your observations and your thoughts around this as part of your initial feedback, you suggest the following plan:

Step 1) Start tracking what you’re doing every day. Maybe try a spreadsheet format of tasks and sub-tasks that you’ve made progress on, and update this at the end of the day.

Step 2) After a week of tracking, using information from the spreadsheet, write up a short summary of what you worked on the previous week.

Step 3) Using the weekly summary write-up, set up a short 15 minute meeting with me to go over the summary. During this meeting, you’ll tell me what you’ve done, and I’ll “read back” to you what I think you’ve done, based on your summary. We’ll iterate on this to uncover things you did that were omitted, or things you did that could use more explanation.

Step 4) Once you feel comfortable with this approach, see if you can use the same (or similar) approach to communicate what you’ve done to the team in our weekly status meetings.

Step 5) Track how well this approach is working for you. See how the team feels. Check how it impacts your velocity and the team’s overall velocity. Iterate, and continue to improve your process.

Explain the benefits of the plan

An action plan out of the blue could be a big ask. Without clearly explained benefits, the receiver might balk at following through. They might think “This is good feedback, but this plan sure seems like a lot of work that’ll take a long time. Is it worth it?”

It helps to explain the benefits with evidence of similar steps working in the past. Often you’ll be creating suggestions based on your own experience, or experience of someone you know well. Use this evidence to make the benefits more concrete.

Always remember, however, that there’s no guarantees. Make sure the receiver understands this. You should both believe that there will be benefits to following the plan, but if for whatever bizarre reason things just don’t go as expected, this shouldn’t be seen as any sort of failure. In fact, you could even use this to influence future actionable feedback — now you know some actions that don’t work for the receiver, or some things that could go wrong with your plans that you hadn’t really considered.

Commit to helping the receiver with the plan, if they decide to do so

It’s important to emphasize that the receiver is not alone going forward. Your suggestions might be asking the receiver to step outside their comfort zone in some way. Having someone the receiver can turn to if the plan becomes too difficult, or if they have questions, will help convince them that they can make a go at things.

You might want to set up some regularly scheduled times to meet and touch base with the receiver just to see how things are going. If scheduling time seems infeasible, maybe come up with some rough dates where the receiver can send you some sort of “progress so far” message. You can then set aside some time to review how they’re doing, and if you think it’s needed, respond with any thoughts, or meet in person to discuss.

It’s possible the receiver might think they don’t need any sort of continual follow-up communication, or that they won’t have any questions. Maybe they find the plan very straight-forward, or they’re already doing something similar. This is fine, but just in case, you should still let them know they can reach out to you regardless.

If the receiver for whatever reason decides not to try the plan, maybe let them know that you’re open to collaborating on a different plan if they’re interested.

Thoughts and Reservations About Actionable Feedback

Actionable feedback might sound beneficial, but if you’re someone that regularly provides feedback for others, you might be thinking “This sounds like a lot more work than my usual feedback process”. You might be worried about things like:

  • It’s a time sink. It’s much easier and quicker to simply say something like “Employee A did a great job on project X” than come up with an entire action plan and follow through with it.
  • By making lots of suggestions, you’re concerned that you’ll seem too nit-picky or critical. Maybe all these suggestions will seem discouraging.
  • Unfamiliarity or lack of context. Maybe you only worked with the person on one project. You have some suggestions, but they’re really suggestions that worked for you. You have no idea if they’ll work for anyone else, or if the receiver has already tried these suggestions.
  • Proposing actionable feedback might seem rather authoritative. You don’t have a training or mentoring background, nor are you this person’s boss, so why are you providing an action plan for them? Isn’t it better to have people figure out how to improve themselves, so they can find their own best path?
  • Fear of failures. What if you take all this time, and it doesn’t work? The receiver of the feedback could simply say “I don’t have time for this”. Or, worse, the receiver could dutifully follow your plan and end up, for some reason, worse off.

Actionable feedback isn’t a simple process. The previously listed concerns are understandable, but keep the following things in mind.

Take the time

Actionable feedback is indeed going to be a time sink. Not only will writing the feedback take longer, but actionable feedback only works if there’s follow-up and collaboration with the person receiving the feedback. You are effectively signing up to help train or teach this person through feedback.

The benefit, however, is actionable feedback is better quality feedback that actually helps people improve faster. All the time taken up will, in most situations, be gained back and more once the person really learns something new and builds new expertise, instead of trying out things on their own that could have a lower chance of seeing positive impact.

So accept that providing actionable feedback is going to take up some of your time. Schedule for it. Let your boss know. Let your company know, and if needed, explain the benefits (see below).

Remember that you’re suggesting and collaborating, not judging and mandating

If you’re worried that actionable feedback might seem too critical, you’re probably not focusing on the right thing. Don’t think of actionable feedback as a judgement of the person or their work. Think of it as an offer to help or guide someone in exploring new ways of doing things.

Also, actionable feedback isn’t a replacement for employee evaluations. Evaluation may still be needed to let people know where they stand. Everyone involved should understand that actionable feedback generally isn’t going to help evaluate someone.

If you’re worried that your feedback might be too closely modeled after your own personal preferences and experiences, that’s ok. Feedback always will have some elements of subjectivity. Understanding this, and adjusting for this if necessary, is what the follow-up process is for. Start and continue the conversation, build the relationship and collaborate on a process

Understand the benefits even when suggestions don’t work

What happens if after going through this whole process, you find that none of the experiments you’ve tried result in anything useful? Was the whole actionable feedback process worthless?

I’d argue that even if the suggestions made via actionable feedback don’t pan out, the receiver is still left with the following gains:

  • They’ve learned some areas of their skill-set that could be improved in some way.
  • They know some ideas that don’t quite work for them, and why. They’ll know what not to try next.
  • They’ve learned ways to collaborate with you, the feedback provider. Future actionable feedback processes will be easier to kick off.
  • There may be some core idea that they see some benefit in, they just have to try a different approach. Maybe using a spreadsheet to monitor their task list didn’t work, but the idea of keeping a list of tasks would be beneficial. They might have possible future things to try.
  • They understand that there are co-workers who are motivated in seeing them succeed.

There’s even benefits to you, the provider of the feedback.

Benefits to the Person Providing the Actionable Feedback

So, actionable feedback can be a lot of work, and most likely a bigger time investment. Maybe the receiver of the feedback can get more benefit from this, but does it come at a cost to the provider of the feedback? Throughout the process there are actually benefits to you, the provider, that might not be initially obvious.

For one thing, you’ll learn a lot about the person receiving the feedback (and again they’ll learn a lot about you). This is particularly valuable if you’re going to be working with this person again.

Additionally, you and the receiver of the feedback will build a new level of trust. Trust problems can be a huge obstacle for collaborative work. Understanding how to improve trust (which you’ll probably gain some insights on as part of this process) will help you with future collaborative work with anyone.

You might even learn something new about yourself. That suggestion you made in your actionable feedback plan that worked so well for you, but didn’t work for the receiver? Maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe that tidbit of information shows you have a particular skill or strength that you didn’t realize. Or, maybe that suggestion you made worked surprisingly well. That might indicate you’ve hit upon a particularly effective, and maybe new, way to teach a particular skill.

Actionable Feedback Can Lead To Mentoring

Perhaps the most interesting benefit of actionable feedback is that it can lead to a form of mentoring. If you and the receiver find you collaborate really well on working through an actionable feedback plan, you might be a great mentor to the receiver. If you’ve been curious about mentoring people but don’t know where to start, or have trouble finding people that want to work with you on mentoring, maybe providing actionable feedback is a way to dip your toe in the mentoring waters.