FeedForward Focuses on the Future


August 13, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

Employees need to know how they are doing–if their performance is in line with what their leaders expect. They need to learn what they have done well and what they need to change. Traditionally, this information has been communicated in the form of ‘downward feedback’ from leaders to their employees. Just as employees need feedback from leaders, leaders can benefit from feedback from their employees.

But how excited are we when we’re invited to ‘come to my office for some feedback’?! Why do we have a negative connotation of feedback? Because it focuses on a past, on what has already occurred–not on the infinite variety of opportunities that can happen in the future. As such, feedback can be limited and static, as opposed to expansive and dynamic.

When I speak to a group of leaders, I ask them to participate in what I call a ‘FeedForward exercise’. In the exercise, participants are each asked to play two roles. In one role, they are asked provide feedforward–that is, to give someone else suggestions for the future and help as much as they can. In the second role, they are asked to accept feedforward–that is, to listen to the suggestions for the future and learn as much as they can. The exercise typically lasts for 10-15 minutes, and the average participant has 6-7 dialogue sessions. In the exercise participants are asked to:

– Pick one behavior that they would like to change. Change in this behavior should make a significant, positive difference in their lives.

– Describe this behavior to randomly selected fellow participants. This is done in one-on-one dialogues. It can be done quite simply, such as, ‘I want to be a better listener.’

– Ask for feedforward–for two suggestions for the future that might help them achieve a positive change in their selected behavior. If participants have worked together in the past, they are not allowed to give ANY feedback about the past. They are only allowed to give ideas for the future.

– Listen attentively to the suggestions and take notes. Participants are not allowed to comment on the suggestions in any way. They are not allowed to critique the suggestions or even to make positive judgmental statements, such as, ‘That’s a good idea.’

– Thank the other participants for their suggestions.

– Ask the other persons what they would like to change.

– Provide feedforward – two suggestions aimed at helping the other person change.

– Say, ‘You are welcome.’ when thanked for the suggestions. The entire process of both giving and receiving feedforward usually takes about two minutes.

– Find another participant and keep repeating the process until the exercise is stopped.

When the exercise is finished, I ask participants to provide one word that best describes their reaction to this experience. I ask them to complete the sentence, ‘This exercise was ___. The words provided are almost always extremely positive, such as ‘great’, ‘energizing’, ‘useful’ or ‘helpful.’ The most common word mentioned is ‘fun!’

What is the last word that most of us think about when we receive feedback, coaching and developmental ideas? Fun!

Reasons to Try FeedForward

When participants are asked why this exercise is seen as fun and helpful as opposed to painful, embarrassing or uncomfortable, their answers provide a great explanation of why feedforward can often be more useful than feedback as a developmental tool.

– We can change the future. We can’t change the past. Feedforward helps people envision and focus on a positive future, not a failed past. By giving people ideas on how they can be even more successful, we can increase their chances of achieving this success in the future.

– It can be more productive to help people be ‘right,’ than prove they were ‘wrong.’ Feedforward, is almost always seen as positive because it focuses on solutions –not problems.

– Feedforward is especially suited to successful people. Successful people like getting ideas that are aimed at helping them achieve their goals. They tend to resist negative judgment.

– Feedforward can come from anyone who knows about the task. It does not require personal experience with the individual. Participants are amazed by how much they can learn from people that they don’t know! Feedforward just requires having good ideas for achieving the task.

– People do not take feedforward as personally as feedback. Successful people’s sense of identity is highly connected with their work. It is hard to give a dedicated professional feedback that is not taken personally. Positive suggestions tend to be seen as objective advice –personal critiques are often viewed as personal attacks.

– Feedback can reinforce personal stereotyping and negative self-fulfilling prophecies. Feedforward can reinforce the possibility of change. Feedback can reinforce the feeling of failure. Feedforward is based on the assumption that the receiver of suggestions can make positive changes in the future.

– Most of us hate getting negative feedback, and we don’t like to give it. Leaders are not very good at giving or receiving negative feedback. It is unlikely that this will change in the near future.

– Feedforward can cover almost all of the same ‘material’ as feedback. Rather than make you ‘relive’ this humiliating experience, your manager might help you prepare for future presentations by giving you suggestions for the future. Your manager can ‘cover the same points’ without feeling embarrassed and without making you feel even more humiliated.

– Feedforward tends to be much faster and more efficient than feedback. By eliminating debate and judgment of the ideas, the process becomes much more positive for the sender, as well as the receiver. Successful people tend to have a high need for self-determination and will tend to accept ideas that they ‘buy’ while rejecting ideas that feel ‘forced’ upon them.

– Feedforward can be a useful tool to apply with managers, peers and team members. Feedforward does not imply superiority of judgment. It is more focused on being a helpful ‘fellow traveler’ than an ‘expert’. An excellent team building exercise is to have each team member ask, ‘How can I better help our team in the future?’ and listen to feedforward from fellow team members (in one-on-one dialogues.)

– People tend to listen more attentively to feedforward than feedback. One participant is the feedforward exercise noted, ‘In feedforward the only reply that I am allowed to make is ‘thank you’. Since I don’t have to worry about composing a clever reply –I can focus all of my energy on listening to the other person!’

I don’t mean to imply that leaders should never give feedback or that performance appraisals should be abandoned. My intent is to show how feedforward can often be preferable to feedback in day-to-day interactions. Quality communication–between and among people at all levels and every department and division–is the glue that holds organizations together.

By using feedforward–and by encouraging others to use it–leaders can dramatically improve the quality of communication in their organizations, ensuring that the right message is conveyed, and that those who receive it are receptive to its content. The result is a much more dynamic, much more open organization–one whose employees focus on the promise of the future rather than dwelling on the mistakes of the past.