Feedback and Feedforward to Keep Agile Teams Motivated

When it comes to managing software development projects, the feedback process can make or break team morale and performance. Mixing in feedforward guidance is one of our management secrets to creating engaged, goal-focused team members and better project outcomes.

As an IT Business Manager at Polcode, one of my key responsibilities is to provide feedback between the client and internal members: developers, UI/UX designers and testers.

Managers are an important link in the client-developer chain, responsible for building a successful relationship with a client, while keeping our own teams engaged and motivated. By offering feedback regularly to all stakeholders in a project, we can ensure its smooth management and guarantee there are no breakdowns in communication.

Business managers are most effective when they act as champions of their team and the client—asking questions instead of giving answers, supporting their staff towards preferred outcomes. That’s why we implement a blend of feedback and feedforward management processes in our everyday workflow:

  • Feedback is most effective when it refers to small, specific events. If you’re familiar with agile software development, you know that weekly stand-ups and scrums often leverage ‘incremental feedback loops’ to address issues encountered very recently. This way, the team can prioritize and solve the issue quickly and move on.
  • Feedforward managing is a continuous process focused on enhancing future performance and coaching people towards whatever is the most desirable goal. It rejects the idea of holding people to criticisms, and more towards progression. Think of it as a coach building a plan for their athlete, or a guidance mentor providing a career path.

The art of giving feedback: offer the right words at the right time 

Giving positive feedback comes easily to all of us. Everything else takes practice and leadership skills. It’s not just about learning how to deliver negative feedback as a manager; it’s about seeking out the cause or problem, learning how to ask questions, and ultimately getting to a positive result for everyone involved. Here’s a few quick tips that we practice for delivering feedback.

  • Set appropriate times to communicate feedback so that it’s never done in haste or in between other conversations. It’s great for both delivering positive feedback (so that it’s not lost in between other topics), and negative feedback (so that it’s not received as a wandering critique).
  • Pre-plan your phrasing so that you know what’s coming out of your mouth (or your fingertips) before it happens. Be specific, use your expertise, and avoid generalizations (“always”, “everyone”, “never”, etc.)
  • Keep it super specific. Good feedback is never vague. Refer to concrete events or documents that allow the recipient to know that you’re talking about a specific context.
  • Find your best way to deliver it. There’s no need to impose a specific form of communication. Choose your most natural interactions with team members
  • Always be respectful even when delivering negative feedback. 

Delivering negative feedback: leave no hard feelings behind

Many people are, at the very least, uncomfortable with formal feedback processes, as they can be anxiety-inducing or carry a negative load due to their past experiences. But great managers are always there to care for their team, knowing that they can deliver authentic feedback without hurting relationships or feelings.

  • There’s always a way to deliver negative feedback. It is never impossible to discuss unwanted behaviors or things that did not go as planned, even though it may initially be difficult.
  • Do not make a feedback session about your demands. Ask questions, listen and try to learn about the other person’s perspective. Help them understand yours, and try to be constructive while moving towards the best possible scenario.
  • Follow a feedback format like a Situation, Behavior, Impact model. It helps you to address the issue, not criticize the person or their personality. For example, “During the last call with the customer (Situation), you made some snarky comments about the customer’s pace of approving tasks (Behavior) and he questions your professionalism (Impact).”
  • Be reserved with giving advice or answers. A coach or mentor’s job is not to provide the right solution to every problem. Ask questions, offer advice, or suggest options. Sometimes, the other person may already be able to provide a solution, but they just need your help and encouragement to implement it.
  • Never raise your voice or condescend. Verbal fights are absolutely never acceptable. They create additional tension and are counterproductive. However, feel free to talk about your emotions if you are certain you can do it in a calm manner. For example, “When the customer pitches their ideas (Situation) and you seem to not be listening (Behaviour) it makes me feel frustrated as we need to spend additional time to get to the core of the problem (Impact).

Back to the future: feedforward management practices

The idea of feedforward mentoring is about mindful management that cares more about future performance in every interaction. Yearly reviews are not that effective in helping people make progress. Instead, feedforward management should work on short-term goals in the future, leading up to the big picture.

  • Focus on goals, not on critiques. Work together to identify how the employee is doing in their role, what’s expected of them, and set targets. What are things that the employee can improve? What factors outside them can help support them? People benefit more from constructive paths forward, rather than reproaches looking back.
  • Talk less about what has already happened. Don’t refer to old issues, and try to not bring up any past examples. Put emphasis on what should happen in the future, and always frame things in solutions that can be done ‘from now on.’
  • Always acknowledge any positives in their performance especially in formal ways (not at the water cooler). It’s motivating and encouraging to receive regular positive feedforward. Remember that regular positive reinforcement is effective no matter who you are managing.
  • Feedforward behaviors are inherently career-building. Giving a sense of progress is a great motivator for employees who want to make vertical moves within the company, learn new skills, or even shift laterally into roles that suit them better.

Blending feedback and feedforward discussions

The best results come when managers are able to leverage the best of feedback and feedforward practices. Looking backwards at specific events should be used as a driving force to deliver better future outcomes. A blended approach keeps everyone well-informed of any issues, without letting it negatively impact future performance.

A few final tips for managing an agile team to promote motivation and satisfaction that I always find very useful:

  • Try shorter, regular time frames. Don’t wait for standard yearly or monthly milestones.
  • Invite feedback and feedforward from your employees and peers as well.
  • Measure! Try to use data-driven approaches. Moving forward means knowing what has happened before and how things have improved.

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