When giving teams feedback is useless

For teams to become better over time they need to have information and time. I think most teams are given information about their performance. They can see if they achieved the predetermined performance indicators. However, without time to think about the feedback, its value approaches zero.

When giving teams feedback is useless

I moved to a 4-day week. I'm trading money for time and a chance to rest. I've learned a lot during the lock-down and ongoing pandemic. Most importantly: life isn't about work or money. I enjoy my work, but the balance is off.

A friend kindly reminded me to not use that day to catch up on work.

In this newsletter, I’m sharing one of my favorite articles on teams. It discusses giving feedback to teams and teams reflecting on it (team reflectivity). I enjoy the article for its simplicity and importance. It doesn't deal with hugely abstract academic concepts or requires a set of complicated processes.

Key points

  • Teams, just like individuals, need feedback to increase their performance.
  • Teams need to process feedback collaboratively to increase their performance.
  • Teams need to develop new strategies based on their feedback to increase their performance.
  • Teams need time away from their day-to-day work to reflect on their feedback and develop and improve their processes.

Teams need information and time to think

The idea behind today's newsletter is pretty straight forward: Teams need information about their past performance and time to think about future actions in order to grow. Without these two factors, teams will stagnate. They will still produce and meet their objectives, but their growth will be limited. As a consequence, they are good at doing the same task, again and again, each time achieving more or less the same result. Once something changes, for example, a more complicated task or a sudden pandemic, the team will experience a drop in performance.

For teams to become better over time they need to have information and time. I think most teams are given information about their performance. They can see if they achieved the predetermined performance indicators. However, without time to think about the feedback, its value approaches zero. Some companies realize that sustained long-term performance requires time away from work. For this reason, they scheduled off-time into their work routines and made reflection part of their culture.

For example, Basecamp works in 6 to 8-week cycles which include a cooldown phase. This time is described as an opportunity to reflect.

"That’s the time to deal with bugs or smaller issues that come up, write up what we worked on, and figure out what we should tackle next."

Doist has something similar in place. Learning is integrated into "housekeeping" and employees set Doist Objective for larger learning blocks.

Accurate feedback is needed for team growth

Team reflexivity is a team process by which team members collaboratively think about how they are doing.

Thus, team members sit together and collaboratively evaluate their past performance, trying to understand why they achieved or not achieved specific targets. By doing this together, team members have a chance to build a common understanding of what the team should be achieving,  and how to achieve this. By discussing different strategies team members implicitly voice their assumption about what is and is not important. In addition, team members get a chance to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, which helps coordinate tasks and create a suitable task distribution.

The basic input for team reflexivity is the performance or process feedback a team receives. If the team only hears 'well done, you delivered the project on time', then they do not know much about their performance. Only that it was delivered within the set time frame. But: did they went over budget? What about the quality? Did they produce something too complex? Did they communicate properly with external stakeholders? What about the mental health of team members? Did someone burn out?

Teams who receive better, more accurate feedback, have the chance to engage in more meaningful discussion about their strategies and thus achieve better outcomes in subsequent tasks. As with feedback for individuals, feedback for teams should be specific, timely, accurate, and relevant.

Team members need to process feedback together

Catherine Gabelica and her team showed that teams who co-reflect on the received feedback experience greater performance growth than teams who only receive feedback or receive no feedback at all. While this sounds pretty straightforward, the importance of this finding is that teams need to spend time together reading the feedback and making sense of it. If teams are not given the time to think about their feedback, this is a lost opportunity.

Not having the time to reflect on feedback leads to the same results as having no feedback. This is the key: Without time to reflect, giving feedback is a waste of time. This applies to individuals and for teams. Individuals and teams need time to digest the information and decide what to do with it. Feedback is a signpost for individuals and teams. But you need to stop, read the sign, and understand how it impacts you. It's the same for teams. Just with the added complexity that several people need to take time out, come to a shared understand of the feedback, and decide what to do with.

Full circle...

While writing these last few lines I realized that I've just given me the thing I'm telling people they need to have in their life: Time to reflect on feedback. I should write my friend's advice on a piece of paper and stick it next to my computer so that I’m not forgetting to use this non-work day to reflect on the past week and make improvements and adjustments where needed. It's not a lost day of productivity, but a year gained.

Subscribe to System Thinking

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.