My Rules of Feedback

Feedback is at the center of agile development. Test driven development, continuous integration, pair-programming, short iterations, showcases… These are all practices geared towards getting more feedback faster. We realize that feedback is immensely valuable for the team and for the individual, and still we might not do it a lot. Giving feedback can be hard, and receiving it can be emotionally tough, but there are a few rules that will make the process more enjoyable for both giver and taker.

I used to do a lot of SQL Server training. At one time, I was doing a SQL Server internals course, and one of my colleagues attended the course. After the course, I asked for feedback, and he told me that I cracked my knuckles a lot, and that it was making it hard for him to concentrate on what I was saying. I hadn't even realized I was doing this. This is the power of feedback - it allows me as a trainer to learn more about myself as seen through the eyes of someone else. I now take great care not to break my knuckles when I'm doing presentations. Thank you Magnus!

Working in a development team means interacting with team members all the time. Specially in an agile environment that uses pair programming and collective code ownership, you will have to talk to other people about what they have done often.

Giving and receiving feedback is a skill, just like most other things we do at work daily, and you need to practise it often to get good at it. These are my rules of feedback.

1. Ask for, and give feedback often

Just like using CruiseControl you want to become almost addicted to good feedback. This mindset will help a team learn more and quicker. If you start working with a new group of people, you should start the feedback cycle by asking for feedback, so that people get used to the dynamics before you start giving feedback. Giving feedback often will also help with the next rule.

2. Provide feedback early

It makes it easier to understand something if the feedback is close to the event. Getting feedback while I still have the situation and the facts clear in my mind is better than days or weeks after, when everything has started to fade. Also, getting feedback early on might prevent me from forming a bad habit.

3. Giving feedback is about sharing your feelings

Instead of generalizing and making bold claims in the name of science, it's more effective to give feedback in "me" terms. Instead of saying "you are rude", you should say "sneezing in my face make me feel belittled and angry". Whether or not an action is rude or not is up for discussion. My feelings are not. This also prevents you from taking the stand that you are the keeper of the truth, and turns the exchange from a lecture into a conversation, where you both might learn something. A good template is: "When you do that, it make me feel like this".

4. Don't evaluate or judge

Good feedback gives the recipient information on their behavior, and gives that person a chance to change. Ester Derby writes "feedback is information about past behavior, given in the present, with the hope of influencing future behavior". Whenever I feel that someone is judging or evaluating me, I have a tendency to become defensive, and I stop listening. So using evaluation as a feedback tool is a good way to create an argument, but a bad way of influencing someone. Sticking to concrete actions like "When we pair program you code without explaining what you are thinking, which frustrates me", instead of "You're not a good communicator and that's frustrating", will make it easier to get the message across.

5. Receiving feedback is about listening to someone else's feelings

When hold this idea in my head, it's much easier for me not take a defensive stand, and instead realize that I'm only listening to someone else's point of view. I can now look at why this person reacted in this manner. Was it something I did? Do I need to change in some aspect? Do I need to communicate differently with this individual, or maybe the whole team? Or maybe the feedback is telling me something about the person giving the feedback.

6. Negative feedback is good

A lot of people think that you should give twice as much positive feedback as you give negative feedback, or "sandwich" the negative between positive feedback. It is my experience that groups of people that consciously give each other frequent and honest feedback, let go of the ego pretty quickly. When this happens, feedback can flow in a more unhindered manner, and everyone wins. Negative feedback is the best possible chance you have to really change. It's difficult and awkward to give negative feedback, and you have to make sure that you present it in a digestible way, but it might also be the best kind of feedback.

7. Talking about the feedback

Meta feedback is a great way to become better at the art of giving and receiving feedback. It will also help people relax and really listen to what is being said instead of trying to defend opinions. To sharpen your feedback skills I suggest that you pick a person you trust and work with, and talk about this with this person. Then you try to improve each others feedback skills by giving each other feedback about the feedback. It's well worth the effort.

What is your feedback to me on these rules?

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