Want to improve your Team? Maybe a Feedback Session can help.

Pedro Vicente
Mindera
Published in
9 min readMay 29, 2018

--

An iOS team during a feedback session with part of the team remote

A couple of years ago I started working at Mindera, a self-organised company.

6 months into it, I wrote a post describing why it was refreshingly different.

Well, a lot has passed since then, I’ve worked in 5 different projects, with different teams, with slightly different M.O… but all followed Mindera’s principles of feedback over evaluation — VERY simply that means that we don’t have performance reviews, where someone defines objectives and after some time checks if you achieve it.. I won’t detail this very much as this would be a post of it’s own.

Anyway, in practice this means that we should give feedback spontaneously on a day-to-day basis.

Besides that as most our teams use Agile, mostly SCRUM, with all the ceremonies (Grooming, Planning, Retrospective..).

That means that we also have a Retrospective where we can discuss the previous 15 days…

So… why did I write this article?

After some time I felt that the feedback wasn’t fully working. I felt that (at least on the teams where I was integrated) we lacked one thing… a common time for the entire team to really stop, relax and talk about how we feel, what we like, dislike and how to improve as a team and enjoy our work even more. Yes, most of us gave feedback to one another, but…

You must be asking yourself, “well what the hell are retrospectives for?

Well, as I said we do work in Scrum and have retrospectives.. but retrospectives end up being more focused on the project at hand, not on the team itself (at least from my personal experience).

I envision a session focused on the team:

  • if we are liking to work with each other;
  • how we can improve and be even better at working with each other;

Do we need this?

Well I found out that there were very simple things that I could not answer.

  • What’s the thing that the person on your left most dislikes that some/all team members do?
  • What’s the thing that a person on your right most likes about the team?

Maybe you can also think about those quick questions (those are just a few examples).

But…

Do you know this? If you do great, maybe you don’t need this!

If you don’t… maybe you agree this is important, maybe you disagree and find that this is too personal. Anyhow give this article a chance and read the next couple of paragraphs…

I can only advocate that whenever I could answer those questions the teams where I was working were far more proficient and pleasanter to work. The experiences I had are not even just from IT teams, or self management ones. I had already experienced something similar on very different teams: from management traditional teams to volunteer teams that run summer camps for kids…

Still this is just an opinion and I trully agree with…

“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”― Jim Barksdale

So check this Google’s study on what matters to a team’s success.

You are probably coming here from an IT perspective so remember that, although we program we are not machines.

Want to try it?

Skeptic or not… do you still want to try it? It’s simple…

This won’t be a very tidy nice manual. It uses the mindset of agile. When we code we build, break and fix things.

In feedback we try, experience, share our experience and retry.

Purpose

Remember the purpose is to create more awareness of the state of each other and as a team — that can, a lot of times, improve both.

To make the purpose clear, we have some mottos, basically things that should be clear to everyone.

Mottos

- You do not own the absolute truth, it’s just your point of view. Remember that.

- The objective of this is to learn more about the people around you, NOT making them do what you want

- This is not: “3 good things, 3 bad things” session. Praise what you see as positive, and suggest improvements for the others.

- Being honest does not mean being rude.

- The idea is to make everybody aware of our person view and who we really are.

- If you want to wash your dirty laundry you came to the wrong session.

- Be humble. Be sincere. Be yourself.

- This will only work if you trust people around you. Let’s start?

- Remember that you will be working with the same people tomorrow. Be honest but also gentle.

- This is a TEAM session. Nothing related to HR/Operations/whatever. It’s just a bunch of people talking.

Facilitator Role

You will need a facilitator. Probably it will be you since you are reading this, it can be anyone on the team. It is simply the person that will make sure the schedule runs smoothly and defines the time limit.

Also it will need to explain the purpose and m.o. to the rest of the team and will help moving the session forward if it becomes “stalled”.

On the first session it can either be from the team or not (if you feel more comfortable in having someone guiding that has done this before), but if you make more sessions the idea is to make the team autonomous.

This role can obviously be done by a different person for each meeting (or always the same).

That person is also responsible to have all the materials needed ready before the session starts, which are:

Material

  • Timer (We use a real Time Timer 12’’ … but even an timer app on a tablet works, it just needs to be big enough so that everyone can see it easily. Also, there are physical timers which are much cheaper like this)
  • 1 sheet of paper + pen/pencil per person

Before

First of all this kind of session only makes sense if the entire team wants it. It means that each person needs to be open to receive and give feedback.

The facilitator, or the person that schedules it needs to be sure this truly happens. Never force someone to go to one… it will only backfire.

During

*** IMPORTANT: This is a NO laptop, NO phone session. ***

It’s short (normally 1h) so let’s keep focused.

A model that I suggest as a starting point:

  • Put the timer somewhere that is visible to the entire team during the entire time. The time the facilitator defines is strict.. when it ends, the session ends no matter where it is.

Note: As a reference we normally use 1 hour for 4–5 people (I’ll take that number as a reference for the times described below)

Having the timer visible for all the people is very important as it reinforces the time left and avoids having a never ending session. This forces people to be concise.

Remember, when the timer hits 0, it ends. This will make people be focused and speak only what is core to their feedback. If a session ends without being finished, next time either the time needs to be increased, or people will need to be more disciplined.

First part — Retrospective:

This will take 5 minutes.

  • Facilitator: Describe the questions that people must answer.

We normally point to 2 questions about everybody else on the room, and one about one-self.

  • Facilitator: After explaining set the timer for 5 minutes

People should use that time (in silence) to write on a piece of paper

Some examples of questions from sessions we already had:

Questions about others on the room:

  • 3 things I can probably help each person get better at
  • 3 things I would like each person to help me get better

Question about yourself:

  • What would be the simple indulgence or gift I would really appreciate when tired or under stress

Questions about others on the room:

  • 3 things that each person does that really improves the team
  • 3 things that each person does that has not a very good impact on the team

Question about yourself:

  • What you really like (something that really pleases you on work)

I’ve add more examples here but reach me if you are interested in this and I can explain how I build the questions and test them.

Second part —Feedback:

When the timer (set to 5 minutes) hits 0 it’s time to reset it.

Set it to 55 minutes and start the feedback loop.

How does it go round?

Feedback loop

  • Facilitator asks for a volunteer to be the first person receiving feedback. It can also be a random person (just avoid losing more than 1 minute with this).
  • The person on the right of that volunteer starts. The idea is to give feedback (that 2 questions written on the paper about the person).
  • When the first person finishes, it rotates to the right to give opportunity to everyone to give feedback about that person (until it reaches the person receiving feedback)

Comments and feelings about the feedback loop

  • The person receiving feedback now has the time to talk a little bit about the feedback received. This isn’t supposed to be a discussion, just share thoughts and feelings on the feedback received if relevant.

This is not mandatory. This step can be skipped if they don’t have something to say

Share personal question

  • After that it’s time to share the answer to the personal question

(we had a funny case where we were bumping our fists on the table when something wasn’t working and it turned out that this was really annoying to someone on the team. This person only spoke out on this session when answering the aforementioned question, even though he had been working with us for some months already)

Repeat

  • Repeat until all people have received feedback

(Facilitator: Remember to make the people be aware of the time available. Normally a good way is when you reach half of the time make everyone aware of that, and also when there are 10–15 minutes left)

Feedback session finished. Should we repeat?

Facilitator: Be aware, the last 5 minutes are reserved. They are meant to be used to speak about the session (anyone that wishes, without any order):

  • Has it been useful or not? Do you want to repeat it? why?

(We have now reached a point where we dropped this part, as a team we assumed that this was a good thing, and it was added to our calendar as a monthly meeting)

If you still want to use those 5 minutes after you decide to do this regularly you can opt to do a team opened question:

  • As a team, is there anything we should start doing?
  • As a team, is there anything we should stop doing?
  • … (as above there are some more examples of questions here)

Just throw the question if anybody can give input, without order, within those 5 minutes.

An Android team during a Feedback session (on the initial phase of writing the feedback)

That’s it?

At the end, if this helped the team (even if in a tiny way your day-to-day life), it worked.

If it didn’t, well, glad you tried it, but you either don’t need it, or you may need a different thing.

Just one more thing…

Did your team have one…
… Was it useful?
… Did you follow this exact process or tweaked it somehow?

If you have a couple of minutes please a comment here or drop me a message at twitter to share some thoughts on this so we can improve this post!

FAQ

Why 3 things in most questions?

If it’s just one thing, people normally pick the obvious things that everybody already is aware. 3 makes you really think about it. Anyway, it isn’t a all or nothing, if there isn’t 3 things you remember.. it’s ok!

Why those questions?

The ideia is to provide either positive questions (to reinforce behaviour), or constructive questions (to offer options to things we believe maybe different).

Avoiding the common “you did this wrong” make people become less defensive. Besides that, since the feedback needs to provide an alternative way to do something it forces the person giving feedback to really think about it not just rant.

Why personal questions?

Well.. I actually already spoke about that above. People are not machines. If you trust and like to work with people around you.. it’s better for everyone. To make this possible you normally need to know the people around you so you understand their decisions/behaviour.

--

--

Pedro Vicente
Mindera

Improver, Husband, Father of 3 & Software @minderaswcraft | Feedback @ LoopGain | Communities @GDGPorto | 🔥 @ O Que Arde Cura