One of my favorite teams at Pivotal is building an all-digital German energy company called Fresh. They’re masters of feedback. I walk over to their desks to find half the team standing up, talking over user stories in progress or sketching out ideas for their next feature. They’re constantly talking and they respect each other’s opinions. I think a lot of their openness comes down to the quality of their relationships — every member of the team knows every other member individually. One of the ways they created those connections so quickly was by giving one-on-one feedback periodically during retrospectives.
Once every couple of months, each person on the team sits down for a couple of minutes with each other person for a couple of minutes to share their personal observations, things they appreciate or have learned from the other person, and areas where they think the other could improve. This makes for a nice contrast to normal retros, where the entire team discusses common topics.
Great software and teams depend on quality feedback. Customer feedback drives product changes through research and analytics, and internal feedback drives team changes through standup and retrospectives. I’ve noticed, though, that repetitive activities like retrospectives can become dogmatic and lull teams into repetitive, single-track conversations. Maybe the team always talks about technical blockers or a tough stakeholder, and that becomes the theme of a series of retros. Maybe some people on the team overpower the conversation, and others hang back. Breaking from those well-worn topics takes a shake-up.
How to Do It
We’ve tried this with a couple of other teams at Pivotal and it’s worked out great. However, good feedback delivered well depends on courage from team members, as well as some forward planning and facilitation. Here are some pointers:
- Talk to your team about the session. Check to see if everyone is interested in giving and receiving feedback, and if some people aren’t, talk to them about why.
- Schedule a one-hour to 90-minute time slot 2 weeks or so in advance, to give everyone the chance to think about feedback for other people on the team. It’s a lot of work to think of both positive and constructive things to say about each person, so give some notice. Reserve somewhere with enough space for everyone to have a private conversation. I like using our kitchen area, which has long tables and chairs that face each other.
- You might also book some time before the meeting for everyone to write down their feedback prior to the session. People often forget to think through or write down feedback unless it’s an explicit activity.
- Find a third-party facilitator who can manage the session. This person can keep time and make sure things run smoothly.
- Give the team a primer on Actionable, Specific, and Kind feedback. You could send an article for the team to read, or better yet hold a little white-boarding session and go over some examples of good and bad feedback by acting it out.
- One week before and one day before the retro, send reminders to everyone that they should be thinking over feedback. I really liked how each person on the Fresh team wrote feedback on note cards, and gave each note card to their partner as we rotated through. It gave everyone a souvenir that they could refer back to.
- Get some drinks and snacks for the session. People are not as kind when they’re hungry.
- Figure out timing. Leave 5–10 minutes at the beginning to set up and 5 minutes at the end to debrief, and I’d recommend about 5 minutes per round for partners to give each other feedback and rotate. A team of up to 10 people can fit into a one-hour session. Remember that partners don’t have to try to fill all the time if they don’t have anything else to say. It’s often a hint that you need to collaborate more with this individual if you don’t have any feedback for them or vice versa.
- Set up around a long table with each pair facing each other. Your rotation pattern varies depending on whether you have an even or odd number of team members.
If you’re odd, then everyone can rotate around the table to the left or right, with one person taking a break each round:
If you’re even, then one person should stay stationary while everyone else rotates:
- The facilitator should keep track of time (2 minutes per person per pair) and call when partners should switch or pairs should rotate. We used a little gong for a signal, which worked out better than shouting.
- After giving feedback, pairs can hand each other their feedback cards.
- Chat after the last round of feedback to see what people learned, what they thought of the session, and ways to improve it for next time. Plan the next one; I think it’s useful to run speed-dating retros every 6 weeks or so, but your cadence might be different.
Giving good feedback is hard, but retros like this make space for people to open up to each other, become closer, and ultimately become much more collaborative and productive as a result. If you work it in periodically, say every 6 or 8 weeks, partners can discuss progress and help each other improve.
I’d love to hear about your favorite resources for giving and receiving feedback, or other things you’ve tried to make teams closer.