Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” – Edmund Burke
In corporate life, people leaders are often told to give “feedback” to those they lead. A better way to frame these communications is “feed forward“. Here’s why:
Feedback infers a focus on what happened in the past. While learning from history is important and necessary, the emphasis should be, as Edmund Burke’s quote highlights, avoiding a repeat of the negative past. To do this, we look forward more than back. The back is merely an indicator, brief example or a snapshot in time. An example of feedback would be:
Aliyah is Michelle’s work team leader. During a quarterly performance review, Aliyah brings up a meeting in which Michelle over promised a deliverable to their customer.
Aliyah: “Michelle, when we met with Acme Design last month and they asked if we could deliver their widget a month earlier, you said that was fine. However, you were not familiar with all the other projects in our pipeline, as a result, you could not have known whether we could meet that date. In reality, our workload was already at capacity so there was no way we could meet that timeline. Our contact at Acme was furious when they learned later that we could not meet the date you promised.”
Michelle: “I’m sorry, Aliyah, I will not let that happen again.”
Aliyah: “Please don’t. Otherwise, we may need to record a performance improvement need in your personnel record.”
Feed forward implies the emphasis on the future, as it should be. In feed forward, you begin with an example of what may happen in the future, if the negative past repeats itself. In this case, you start with the future, touch briefly on the past as one possible path for the future and return focus on the preferred outcome. Feed forward is a focus on the future – that which can be changed. Let’s see what feed forward may look like in the same scenario between Aliyah and Michelle.
Aliyah: “Remember when you committed to an early delivery for Acme Design and how it really upset the customer when we then missed that date?”
Michelle: “Yes and I felt awful about that.”
Aliyah: “Do you think there is a better way we can approach a similar situation in the future?”
Michelle: “Absolutely! I won’t commit to any dates without approval from you and the leadership team in the future.”
Aliyah: “While that may work, I really want you to be confident and grow in your responsibilities. So instead, maybe next time just don’t feel compelled to agree to the customer request until you know all the facts. Sure, we always want to serve our customers needs, so you could say something like, ‘I’d like to meet your request, but let me check with operations and get back to you tomorrow.’ Then, you can gather all the facts and answer the customer’s needs without false expectations.”
Michelle: “Okay, next time I’ll make sure I have all the facts.”
In providing feed forward, you ensure the focus is on that which can be changed. So the next time you’re asked to give feedback, let the requestor know you’re more interested in improving the future. Therefore, you’ll offer feed forward instead of feedback.
Question: What other benefits do you see in offering feed forward instead of feedback?