Earlier this year, I found myself sitting on a beach in Malta reading through Nine Lies About Work (Buckingham and Goodall, 2019). Going through the pages, I started to map some of its ideas to the foundations of a culture of continuous feedback I contributed to at my former employer. I decided then to collect some notes about the work we did to build it — you are now reading through them.
Implementing Continuous Feedback
In late 2017 I took on the challenge of shaping culture in a mid-sized startup. One of the outcomes we wanted was to increase transparency around compensation practices. With the dreaded “salary review season” upon us, we tried to demystify the factors that contributed to compensation updates, one of which was of course performance. We observed that it was unclear how it was measured, and rarely people had explicit knowledge of how the company perceived their performance.
We wanted to stay away from performance management “cycles” and grading people on a 1-to-5 scale. Instead, we placed a bet on a “continuous feedback” culture. We believed in the spirit of “if it’s hard, do it often” and we had a clear idea of what we didn’t want, but we knew it would be tricky.
We decided to integrate a software platform to help us. We didn’t want to rely too much on tools, but we also needed something that could help us create a habit over time. We also wanted to be able to scale it without requiring excessive effort from our small people operations team.
We went live with three main components:
- A weekly pulse and check-in. This component prompted everyone in the organisation to rate their overall mood at the end of a week. They were also invited to answer a series of questions to tell their managers how things are going. People could also list their current priorities towards the following week if they chose to.
- Functionality for one-on-one meetings: support for agenda creation, structuring and documenting the conversations.
- Support for quick recognition in the form of high-fives: these were short public statements akin to a tweet used to show appreciation to one another within the software.
Armed with the insight that a tool is just a tool, we secured buy-in from leadership and worked on a few guidelines of what we considered a good approach to this continuous feedback culture:
- Our managers publicly committed to review and provide feedback on the weekly check-in, and to meet their team members for one-on-ones at least once a month.
- We emphasised the weekly check-in as a feedback tool, not a reporting one and advised against using it for tracking progress. We already had Jira, Asana, post-its, or whatever teams were using for that purpose.
- We encouraged everyone to use high-fives to drive concrete behaviours. Something like “high-five to you for being awesome this week!!” is not very insightful or actionable. On the other hand a “high-five for taking the time to put together and deliver a patterns seminar, it was a great intro for newcomers” is specific and recognises something we would like to see more often.
- Managers would prioritise meeting with anyone that appeared to be having a hard time. A score below 3 in the weekly pulse or other similar indicators throughout the check-in would help us identify and proactively address the situations.
We did some trial runs experimenting with different set-ups, and when we felt it was good enough and safe to try, we launched to the whole company. As we expected adoption didn’t reach 100%, but most of the company gave it a good try and participation was high. After a few weeks it got stable at around 70%, which we learned was comparable to what other companies were seeing.
Over the span of almost a year, I collected some observations:
- Usage was heavily influenced by how engaged the reviewer was. Which makes perfect sense — if nobody reacts or cares about the feedback you write, why would anyone keep doing it? Thanks to this, we gained awareness of leaders who maybe were not so interested in the people management aspect of their roles.
- We managed faster and with more urgency instances where someone was having a rough time. People tend to keep their frustrations to themselves, and power dynamics at the organisation were still at play. Some didn’t feel like speaking up in person but felt comfortable writing it down.
- Despite initial doubts about it (“this is too American!”), the high-five functionality became super popular, was widely adopted and appreciated.
- Most people ignored or abandoned one-on-ones documentation functionality after a couple tries. Which is ironic considering it had been requested time and time again by managers in the past. In my opinion, this is the case of a product building exactly what their users wanted just to find out nobody used it.
- Some teams did fall into the trap of using the check-in as a tracking tool, especially when the people manager was also the person providing general work objectives. The way the tool structured the information didn’t help — it does look like a to-do list!
- Some people spent way too much time filling the feedback. We make clear that if it’s taking more than 15 minutes, you might be overdoing it but the experience varied from person to person and team to team. What was interesting was to have conversations with people that raised they couldn’t afford to spare 15 minutes per week on this. “What’s going on that makes you so busy?” sparked good discussion and awareness of problem areas.
- The whole concept of continuous feedback and using the software tool made a few individuals feel like we had gone all big brother on them. They didn’t want any data collected that could be eventually “used against them”. We took it as a sign that not everyone had understood what we were trying to achieve. Bad experiences also burned some people in previous companies.
It’s worth noting that the people operations team didn’t have visibility on data other than usage metrics and aggregated values from the weekly pulse. It made things more difficult for us, but it was a conscious decision. We wanted to provide individuals with a higher sense of privacy over their feedback. And also demonstrate trust in that our managers would be proactive and support their teams in a timely and effective manner. In the end, the experience was not consistent; some of the managers lacked the emotional intelligence, time or interest to do this properly. But at least now we knew.
Mapping the results
Here is a quick list of the takeaways from the book I found most relevant to this experience. Note that there is a lot more in the book, and of course, if this sounds interesting, I recommend reading it.
- People don’t necessarily want feedback all the time despite what everyone seems to think millennials want; But people need attention.
- We can reliably rate our own experiences, but we can be quite bad at grading other people’s performance.
- We have much more to gain by helping people achieve their dreams instead of trying to fix whatever it is we think is wrong with them. Fixing mistakes is a tool to prevent failure, but it won’t drive excellence.
- We don’t clearly know what triggers performance or how to measure it, but we know the best way to accelerate performance is coaching.
- Our experience at work is, in most cases, centred around the team, not necessarily the company. You can be in terrible companies and stay because your team is great, and also leave companies when you land in an awful team.
- The best companies focus on cascading meaning, not just goals, across the organisation.
I found interesting how our attempt to create a culture of continuous feedback maps to the insights derived from Nine Lies About Work:
- When correctly exercised the weekly check-in provides attention to people. Everyone had a chance to feel like they were listened and able to open a conversation if they chose to. It minimised the need for “do you have a few minutes for feedback?” requests and the stress those might induce. Our process communicated minimum expectations that were easy to comply with (even if not everyone chose to). It also allowed time to think and write things down which many people, especially introverts, appreciated.
- Most, if not all, of the exploratory questions in the pulse and weekly check-in, were meant to be answered from a place of people’s own experiences and intentions.
- Likewise, performance-related questions didn’t ask managers to grade, rate or assess performance, but to share their perception and experiences.
- High-Fives became a great, low-effort, timely way to highlight things people should do more of. They come from everyone, not just reviewers, which provides more data points, activating the wisdom of crowds.
Of course, there are plenty of things that could have been better. To name just a few:
- The Nine Lies authors reason that what people care about is their teams, but we removed team sharing from the feedback experience. The tool allowed for a team to share feedback with the whole group if wanted. But after our initial trials, we concluded that people were more keen to be open if we made it private. Looking back, we were prioritising personal development over team development.
- Coaching was not an explicit expectation. We identified that many parts of the organisation needed additional help, but many of our managers didn’t have the experience or had received coaching training. And so, the continuous feedback culture didn’t improve things as much as we would have hoped.
- Continuous attention is good, but we saw instances of fatigue, especially for people that wanted to comply with the process but couldn’t find the value in it over time. Having this culture in place gave us awareness on things, but we often lacked resources to take the next steps. And without visible changes, some people found themselves thinking this was a pointless exercise.
- The whole thing was called “Continuous Feedback” — did we make people feel continuously judged? I don’t have an answer but if it happened, wasn’t our intention.
To wrap up, I still believe there is value in implementing a continuous feedback culture and I would absolutely do it again.
Reading Nine Lies after putting some distance to this experience, allowed me to connect the dots and highlight what was great about it. Despite the shortcomings, fulfilling the need for attention, and recognising what people are doing well is worth the price of admission, and I believe it did more good than harm to us.