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Systemic Reflection: Stop giving feedback!

Many of us have been in a situation in which we had to perform a task, observed by others, and we performed badly. We knew that when it happened, and we also knew, instantly, what could have been done better.

And then, we have to go through the grinding ritual of feedback, where one, or even worse, several people are asked to give feedback. Those people – the givers – spin their feedback by pointing out some positives first. Not because they particularly liked those positives, but because they were taught that it helps creating an open mind for the blows, the negatives. 

In reality, those on the receiving end – the takers – close the shutters of their shop very early in this process, especially when the givers get very worked up, and can’t stop themselves, even if a specific point has been made already.

It is an utterly frustrating process, because what happened is in the past, and can’t be changed.

The concept of feedforward, developed by Marshall Goldsmith, works much better. It focuses on the future, not the past. The givers are not even allowed to talk about the past, they can only give two (!) suggestions for the future, after the taker has described the behaviour they would like to change and/or improve.

From a systemic point of view, the element of the future or the future task is added to the field. And that creates a lot of change, and energy. It creates an opportunity for the taker to do better. And it helps the givers to be specific and relevant in their suggestions.

I am not sure you can forcefully exclude the past. To me the past task, and the positives and the negatives that happened then, are sources for the future task. We should acknowledge them as elements, but not necessarily explore them. The focus of the learning and development discussion – for the taker – should be on the future task, and on any suggestions for positives to happen, and negatives to avoid.

There are many ways to use feedforward. It can be used in 1:1 coaching, or in a larger group. It can happen just after a task that was observed (to turn feedback into feedforward), or not. What I do advise is to limit the talking. So if there are suggestions to be made, they should be limited in number, and only related to the future task. And then, the client (the taker) should really take some time to mindfully explore the field, to sense the future task and positives and negatives, and to integrate what needs to be integrated.

I have found that feedforward is a much more powerful and positive way to help people develop.

Thanks goes to Jan Jacob Stam who introduced the concept of feedforward to me. More systemic reflections to follow!