If you were to ask me what I believe to be the single most effective practice my team has adopted over the past couple of years, hands down, it would be feedback & cake.
This post is part of the series The secret sauce to an effective team which describes the steps taken within my team at Unruly in order to facilitate the fostering of psychological safety amongst members of the team.
Safety & Ceremony
My personal anecdotal experience has been that the biggest barrier to successful teamwork is a lack of open honesty between the individuals on the team.
Any debate about waterfall vs. agile vs. Agile is moot if the individuals applying these practices can’t work together to refine the process. It seems to me that any such refinement is only possible if the individuals feel free to openly discuss what isn’t working for them at an individual level.
There are many opportunities in these processes to express such concerns, retrospectives are one such opportunity, but these usually focus on the process rather than the individuals. Further more, when they do touch on the individual, they only deliver the result if the individuals participating feel safe enough to be honest with each other.
In order to facilitate such a safe environment you need to focus on the individuals and detach that entirely from the process at hand. I feel a need to stress this because my perception so far has been that little of the conversation around choosing a methodology ever touches on the individuals who’ll have to apply that methodology, and yet arguably those individuals’ psychological safety seems to me to be more impactful on the success of the team than whether they’re writing user stories themselves or following someone else’s specification.
In my team we have devised a ceremony which has, in my opinion, allowed us to build a strong sense of safety in the team.
The ceremony is actually quite important, because the foundation for creating an environment which feels safer is to have a mutually agreed upon set of rules dictating the expected behaviour of individuals within this environment and to have a clear separation between this environment and the outside world.
I would add, speaking as an atheist who grew up in a religious environment, that I recognise the bonding effect that ceremonies have on social groups. Coalescing around a ceremony encourages social groups to manifest their collective intent into something which feels existent, rather than just an idea.
Feedback & Cake
Our ceremony begins with cake.
All ceremonies should, and so, ours does. More accurately, the ceremony begins with the team meeting in a private space, ideally a quiet meeting room with few external distractions. The team sits around a cake, or an equivalent yet healthy option, and “breaks bread”.
A volunteer then opens our guidelines on a laptop and reads the document out loud to the rest of the team.
This is an important part of the ceremony as it encourages everyone to sit quietly, eat their cake, take in the guidelines a fresh and relax.
At the bottom of this page is a shared Google Doc with the guidelines we vocalise at the start of each Feedback & Cake session. Feel free to copy it, amend it, redistribute it and do as you please with it. Our goal in being transparent and sharing this document is to encourage more teams to adopt this practice.
Reminder of the Period
In order to keep the feedback cycle short and affective, we agree as a team to focus on the past two weeks which aligns with our last iteration. As we practice two week iterations (many of you probably refer to these as sprints) we ask that the team focus on events which took place within that timeframe.
If an event took place before the last iteration, we prefer that people side step it and only bring it up if the behaviour repeats itself.
Obviously we wouldn’t stop a person from giving feedback on an event outside of this time period, but we have found that just by adding this guideline, people find it easier to “let go” of past events and trust their team mates that unless such an occurrence repeats itself, it was nothing more than a mistake and the person is likely aware enough not to repeat it.
We’re all human and can make mistakes, we acknowledge that, and thanks to the feedback & cake sessions, we also learn that all humans can learn from these mistakes.
In order for the feedback to be effective and actionable we choose to limit the attendance to the team members themselves.
Product Development teams at Unruly include the developers themselves, a tech lead whose job is to facilitate the teams effectiveness and a product manager whose job it is to help the team in building relationships with the rest of the business, focusing on the products that the team’s irresponsible for.
These are the most immediately impactful relationships for our teams and so, we keep the feedback session focused on these.
Our teams are more fluid than in many other companies, but in most cases we’re talking about groups of approximately 6 to 10 individuals.
In order to encourage authentic, clear and well thought out feedback, we give team members time to prepare and reflect on the time period at hand. Typically this takes 20 minutes or so, during which people continue to eat, write to themselves on post-it notes and respect each other’s privacy by limiting the conversation.
At first this period of quiet feels ominous but as trust improves, its becomes light hearted yet respectful.
Some individuals take notes throughout the iteration, others wait until the feedback session, but both approaches are fine and individuals tend to use whichever is most comfortable to them.
Once the preparation is done and the team signals that they have finished writing notes, we seek consent.
We find that feedback is best received when solicited or given with agreement from the recipient.
There are several methods to seeking consent. For instance, the giver could ask each recipient if they would like the feedback before giving it.
My team’s approach is to have a check-in with everyone in the team at the start of the feedback session.
We do this by going around the circle, and each person either gives or withholds consent.
“I am willing to give and receive feedback.”
I would recommend keeping an eye out for peer pressure. If no individual ever withholds consent, it is important to ensure people feel safe to do so, as they might not.
I had such a concern in the beginning but several weeks into this ceremony, one team member withheld consent.
“I do not wish to give, nor receive, feedback”
Perhaps they were going through a though time outside of work, or perhaps they simply didn’t feel in the mood, but we respect their wishes and skip over them in the session.
You should also keep an eye out for individuals who are selective in their consent.
“I am willing to give feedback, but do not wish to receive any”
If this is a repeating pattern, it suggests that the individual may be feeling unsafe or perhaps they haven’t bought into the process. I would take such an individual aside at the next opportunity and try to get to the bottom of the issue.
Unless this is a recurring pattern, I would allow all individuals to opt-in and out at will. This is part of the safety building process and is normal.
one piece of feedback at a time
Once every team member has voiced their consent, we go through the team members one by one, and each person gives one piece of feedback to someone else.
The format of feedback is that we preface the feedback by declaring who this feedback is for and whether it is meant to reinforce a positive behaviour that the giver has perceived, or constructive feedback meant to correct a behaviour the giver has felt to be unwelcome.
An example would be:
This is constructive feedback is for Jennifer. When we were pairing on Monday, there were several different occasions during the session when I was driving and you tried to explain something to me which I didn’t understand, so you pulled the keyboard away from me and typed the code yourself. When you did this I felt stupid that I didn’t understand and like I was more a burden on you than your pair.
We’ll discuss what feedback actually is in the next section, but this example shows you an example of how feedback is directed, specific, balanced and short.
We move around the circle, one by one, until everyone has finished giving all their feedback. Each individual will have a different number of actual pieces of feedback, but we move around the circle anyway, allowing each person the opportunity either to give feedback or to declare that they have no more.
We continue around the circle both to give individuals breathing time between pieces of feedback and to give individuals who may have ran out of feedback notes the opportunity to give an additional piece of feedback they have initially forgot about or withheld.
What is feedback?
At its core, the feedback circle is an exercise in building empathy. To that end, the teammates are asked to acknowledge that the feedback they are about to receive is not a fact or truth. Rather, feedback is the perception of the giver and it is up to the recipient to choose whether to accept it, action it and how to go about doing so.
To reinforce this we try to phrase feedback using I statements, expressing the perception of the event as being the perspective of the giver. This allows us to express how we felt after or during the event, which helps avoid a situation where the recipient feels labeled or under attack; and instead engages them on an empathetic level.
We ask team mates to give feedback in a balanced manner, describing their perception both concisely and specifically.
We believe that balance is achieved by giving a combination of what is being done well with what could be improved, but we keep in mind that too much praise for an individual could lead to overconfidence and too much criticism could lead to hurt feelings and demotivation.
To encourage balance we ask that team members give reinforcing feedback and constructive feedback separately, keeping each part concise.
Separating these also allows us to avoid a pattern of behaviour we jokingly refer to as the shit sandwich, which is when an individual wraps the constructive feedback in reinforcing feedback.
For example, bellow is an example of a shit sandwich:
I have feedback for Nigel. I think you did a great job rallying people to go vote. I have to say though that I felt very uncomfortable, being an immigrant myself, by the way you stoke racist prejudice, out right lie to poeple and deceive the poor into thinking their misfortune is the fault of their immigrant neighbours. But you can be proud of the fact that you managed to tap into the feelings of the masses and got them more involved in politics. Then again, so did Hitler.
That, is a shit sandwich.
The problem with this pattern is that it contains too many signals for the receiver to process. It makes it hard to focus on the positive aspects of the reinforcing feedback and equally hard to process the constructive feedback and give it the appropriate weight.
In my team we have decided that such situations should be separated into two separate pieces of feedback, each given in their own turn, thereby providing the receiver two opportunities to take in the feedback in the appropriate manner.
In the above example, I’d present Nigel with two separate pieces of feedback:
- A constructive piece of feedback expressing how I felt unwelcome as an immigrant and fearful as the member of minority when I witnessed his campaign.
- A reinforcing piece of feedback expressing how well he has done in achieving fascist status, which I know he has pursued for some time now.
I have seen other teams take a slightly different approach, where they actually prefer to give the constructive and reinforcing feedback together in order to force individuals to always seek both the positive and the negative in a persons’ behaviour. I personally don’t believe in that approach and believe it discourages people from giving concise constructive feedback and might actually cause individuals to withhold feedback all together.
I probably wouldn’t give him reinforcing feedback at all, to be honest.
concise & specific
We believe a piece of feedback should be concise, specific and phrased matter of factually.
To enforce brevity we ask individuals to fit their feedback on a post-it note.
To enforce specificity we ask givers to phrase feedback in a non-ambiguous manner, avoiding general themes and patterns - we specify the situation or piece of work, who was present and specifically what the observed behaviour was.
We avoid the use of the words “all”, “never” and “always”, as these words can seem extreme, lack credibility and they place arbitrary limits on behaviour. If the giver addresses terms of quantity at all, then they should try to be precise about quantity or proportion.
What feedback isn’t
We keep in mind that feedback has to be fair, isn’t an opportunity to vent and is not an opportunity to give the recipient advice on how to change.
outside the individual’s control
Firstly, feedback should not relate to behaviour or circumstances the receiver cannot control.
The goal of feedback & cake it to build trust between the members of the team, not to allow individuals to criticise or vent their frustrations. Giving feedback about events outside of the control of the receiver serve the giver, not the team, and don’t belong in such a session.
Secondly, we keep feedback focused on our perception of a specific behaviour and we do not turn it into advice for how the recipient can change.
This is both because we acknowledge the fact that our perception might be wrong, and because it will likely turn the feedback session into a debate and force the recipient to go on the defensive.
We do allow recipients to ask for advice or suggestions, but then we insist that the giver be explicit about what they would like to change. A good rule of thumb when giving such solicited advice is to avoid sounding like you’re preaching, by staying away from words like “good,” “bad,” “must,” “need to,” etc. Rather, we use words like “could” and offer options.
a group activity
To avoid the feeling of ganging up on a recipient of feedback, unless we’re the person giving or receiving feedback, we avoid contributing an additional observation, unless asked to by the receiver.
This means that team members avoid showing agreement when others give feedback, be it by repeating a piece of feedback or even by nodding along with another persons’ feedback.
Respect & gratitude
A last but important note on feedback & cake is that we consider a the feedback a teammate provides us with as valuable and as a gift.
With that in mind we feel it is important to let the person complete their feedback before asking for clarification or advice. We then show appreciation by thanking the giver for their feedback.
The overall goal
That more or less covers the ceremony of feedback & cake in my team at Unruly.
The goal of this feedback circle, as I stated at the start, is to build trust in the team. That said, I would add that there is a supporting goal and that is for the trust to become so strong, that the feedback circle is no longer required.
This doesn’t mean that we’re trying to reach a point where no feedback session takes place, as I don’t believe it is possible for a productive team to reach a point where no individual feedback is needed.
What we do hope to achieve is a level of trust where the individuals of the team feel comfortable giving immediate feedback to each other, rather than having to wait for the next feedback & cake session. This would be an ideal situation as it would allow teams to address issues sooner, directly and regularly.
These days I find I have less and less feedback to give at the session, as I have usually given most of my feedback directly to my teammate when the event occurs, or soon after.
But that doesn’t mean my attendance at the sessions any less important. I still go to the session, as I often do have some additional feedback to give, as my teammates will likely have feedback to give me, and most importantly - there’s cake to be eaten.
Our guidelines document
Feel free to copy it from here.