Friday, 2 December 2016

Better ways and words for giving "Feedback"

Feedback is immensely helpful for our individual growth and team performance. And yet giving feedback can be a challenge. How can we make it more likely that our feedback will be well received and have a positive outcome?
Being able to give and receive feedback creates a huge opportunity for us, and yet for many people even the term "feedback" is loaded with negativity. Lets see if we can find some better ideas and words to help us with this important skill.
Psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg, creator of Nonviolent Communication (or NVC) proposed that when we communicate, we are really only saying one of two things: "Thank you" or "Please". In other words we are either expressing gratitude or making a request. How could this idea help us with giving feedback?
Dr Rosenberg role-playing scenarios to demonstrate the application of NVC
"All people ever say is THANK YOU (a celebration of life) and PLEASE (an opportunity to make life more wonderful)" Marshall B. Rosenberg PhD.
Thinking of "positive feedback" as giving thanks and "negative feedback" as a request to behave in a different way, gives feedback new meaning and opens up a new vocabulary. A compassionate request providing an actionable alternative way of being has the potential to be far more valuable to someone than simply pointing out their limitations!

Say Thank You often

Expressing appreciation isn't difficult. It is just a case of being clear about what it is someone is doing and why this is helpful. Here is one simple way of achieving this:
A commendation from George to Sunil thanking him for his openness

Developing a sense of gratitude is good for us, mentally and even physically. Sharing appreciations publicly not only celebrates our colleagues. It encourages others to do likewise and helps to create an open feedback culture within the team.

Saying Please?

Asking someone to behave differently takes more care, however it needn't be that difficult either. NVC gives us a more positive way to frame our requests that is more likely to receive a compassionate response from the recipient. Consider the following example expressed in a form inspired by the NVC request:
A recommendation from Jane, suggesting how a teammate could meet her need for equality and respect

Lets examine the request a little more closely by breaking down each part:

I am noticing...

Jane identifies her teammate's behaviour i.e. interrupting Pauline and Sunil and gives examples of when this occurs e.g. in their planning and design meetings. These observations are expressed in a way that is without judgement or diagnosis, while the examples provide clarity.
Starting with observations of just what the person is saying and doing is important. Often we form an opinion of someone, but when we try to identify the actual behaviours that led us to this diagnosis, they prove elusive. If you find you are struggling to identify the person's behaviours i.e. just what they are saying and doing, then maybe you need to wait, observe more closely and reevaluate the basis for your request.
The greatest benefit comes from identifying repeated behaviours that are having the most significant and detrimental impact on the individual and or the team.

This makes me feel...

In the example, Jane is feeling frustrated and anxious because her need for respect and equality for others isn't being met by her teammate's behaviour. In this situation, by expressing her emotions and her underlying unmet need,  she is more likely to elicit a compassionate response from the recipient. This inventory of feelings shows the full range of emotions that we may experience. Thankfully in most professional situations the emotions we may feel is more limited, making them easier to identify and express.
The ability to identify and communicate our feelings and emotions is an important life skill. Our feelings point us to the unmet need that is driving them. This knowledge gives us an opportunity to find strategies for getting our needs met that are not in conflict with other people's strategies for meeting their own needs.
A common misinterpretation is to say something like "This makes me feel... like you do not care about the work". Note that this isn't expressing an emotion. It is actually making a judgement about what you think the other person is thinking! If you find yourself doing this, reflect for a moment on what you are actually feeling and not what you are thinking. This will help you to identify the need that is not being met by the recipient's behaviours. Just as with feelings, humans have share many needs. Here is an inventory of needs that may help you identify your own in a particular situation.

From now on, it would really help...

Finally, Jane asks her teammate if they would let Pauline and Sunil explain their ideas fully their design meetings. This would meet her need for respect and equality. The request is expressed as something the recipient can actually do, as opposed to asking someone not to do something. This is clearer for the recipient and reduces the possibility that the request will be met with a defensive reaction.


Equipping ourselves with the tools to be able to give feedback is the first step. The form described above is inspired by the NVC processThis approach helps us to say the things that need to be said. As long as we say it from the heart, with good intention towards the recipient and the team, we won't go far wrong.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Team agreements for Agile Performance Management

This post describes an approach for getting started with TeamSense in a way that is aligned with its three core values of Respect, Individual Development and Team Performance.

The first step is to establish some important up-front agreements. Doing this as a team draws on everyone's experience, gives people the opportunity to raise any concerns and gives the team ownership of their Performance Management process.

1. What competencies do we value?

Answering this question is a very valuable exercise in itself. It begins a team dialog on competencies, bringing people to a common understanding of what a particular competency means and looks like in the team setting.

TeamSense comes with a bunch of predefined competencies, which the team can customise or add their own. The competencies are expressed as a short heading, a brief description and a list of example behaviours.

To help this discussion one can use a deck of cards, each one with a competency name, description on the front and the example behaviours on the back. Teammates can pass them around, talk about their relevance to the team and ultimately select the ones they think most important. In addition there should be some blank cards, to allow the team to come up with their own competencies as they wish.

These cards are available here for you to use.

2. How frequently are we going to exchange ratings and feedback?

Having determined the competencies that matter, now the team need to agree how often they are going to exchange ratings and discuss their feedback. There are lots of options, from every 4 weeks through to every 3 months. 80% of participants each take less than half an hour to exchange ratings. This makes more frequent reviews a viable proposition.

3. Who are we going to discuss our feedback with?

Being able to discuss the feedback is very important. The options available depends very much on the culture of your organisation. In more traditional environments where people are used to Performance Reviews people may readily agree to sharing their feedback with their Line Manager. This is aligned with the Respect principle, as long as the Line Manager commits to sharing the feedback they received from the team with their Line Manager.

Of course, more progressive organisations have more creative options. For example an HR consultant can serve as the team's moderator. Their role is to support the team members in understanding and realising any recommendation they are given. Being external to the team, an HR moderator is well placed and appropriately skilled to do this as well as mediate between team members in conflict.

4. When will we review these agreements?

It is important to continuously apply the learning from previous review cycles. Just like any other activity, this one needs to be regularly inspected and adapted to ensure that it is still of value to the team.

Having decided the review cadence, the team can decide how many reviews to have before re-examining all of these agreements. It could be that the team may want to focus on different competencies, adjust the frequency of the reviews or find more helpful ways of discussing the feedback. If the team is very stable and ratings and feedback are very positive you might want to reduce the frequency or experiment with more specific competencies e.g. domain knowledge or technical expertise.


To get the most value from TeamSense, it should be used in a way that is aligned with its values and principles. A good way to begin is with a team discussion, the goal of which is to agree the competencies, cadence, conversations and retrospection. Talking about the competencies valued by the team is a useful exercise in its own right.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Principles and values for Agile Performance Management

To really understand what TeamSense is all about, a good place to start is with its three core values and the principles that flow from them. Not only are these principles deeply embedded, they serve to inform how the tool can be applied in different situations.

1. Respect

Fundamentally, respect is treating people as you would like to be treated. People generally like to be treated fairly and equally. They like to be consulted and have the opportunity to express their point of view. With TeamSense, ratings and feedback flow in all directions within the team. No one person is responsible for giving feedback or team performance. Everyone is.

As TeamSense is the team's tool, establishing how to use it is best done through team discussion and agreement. The team determine the competencies that are of value to them, the cadence at which feedback will be exchanged and the conversations that will happen during and at the end of each feedback cycle. This is more respectful than dictating how the tool will be used. It also enables the team members to reciprocate respect by agreeing to be bound by the team's agreements.

The principle of ownership gives team members full control over their ratings and feedback. Nobody can access this data unless the individual explicitly shares it with them. This prevents the situation where people's performance feedback is being accessed without their knowledge for purposes other than personal and professional development.

2. Individual Development

Whether we see personal development and growth as a purpose in itself, there is no doubt that a deeper understanding of our behaviours can be of great personal benefit. Professional development enables us to have successful careers, and though this is no guarantee of happiness, it can certainly make life a lot easier. Taking a moment to recognise that we are all on a journey helps us to see our current state of being in context and to move forwards.

Meaningful feedback is essential for our development and growth. But to be meaningful, it needs to be accurate and from the heart. The closer feedback can be given to the observation that prompted it, the better the learning will be for the recipient. Sometimes however, for meaningful feedback to be given at all, it may have to be anonymous. Similarly, the recipient may only be open to receiving feedback that is given in confidence.

Receiving feedback is one thing, but really learning from it is another. The best aid to this is to discuss it in an informal setting with someone we trust. How this happens forms part of the team agreements mentioned previously and will vary depending on the constraints imposed by an organisation's culture. Options might include one-to-ones with a Line Manager or some other trusted individual. In more progressive organisations this could be an HR person external to the team. They would act as the team's feedback moderator, supporting team members in understanding and realising the recommendations they receive. If necessary they can also serve to mediate between team members in conflict.

3. Team Performance

Wanting people to have the opportunity to develop and grow isn't just a noble goal. It is an important factor in enhancing the performance of the team. Appropriately anonymised charts make the team's competencies visible in a way that is about the competencies, not the individuals. It raises awareness and provides a way into team discussion about how they can improve.


Unlike traditional approaches to Performance Management, TeamSense is founded on respectful and team centric values and principles. These values are aligned with those of Agile and Lean, making TeamSense a good fit for Agile teams.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Performance Management: A team responsibility

I have a lot of empathy for HR people these days. They have many difficult challenges but it seems only one, blunt instrument with which to tackle them all. The Performance Appraisal is required to provide answers to an array of gnarly questions:
  • How much should we pay people?
  • Who do we promote and who do we fire?
  • How do we tell people they need to improve?
The trouble is that Performance Appraisals really aren't very good at determining any of these things. As anyone who has participated in one will know, they are time consuming and happen too infrequently for goals to be meaningful or for people to learn from the feedback they receive.

Other problems are well understood. Feedback is given by only one person who, being human is prone to bias. The feedback flows in one direction only i.e. ‘downwards’ from someone who is in a position of authority. This is hardly conducive to the kind of conversations that might help people to grow. Leaving aside personalities and competence, it is hard to be candid about one’s shortcomings with the person who ultimately controls your career. It also creates an enormous challenge for review managers, who often feel uncomfortable with the arrangement and who would appreciate candid feedback themselves.

Finally, Performance Appraisals are especially damaging for Agile teams, where collaboration is highly valued and easily undermined. Some Agilists have even suggested that people refuse to participate in them altogether. No wonder everyone, including HR, find the whole exercise frustrating and demoralising. Surely there is a better way? Something that is inclusive, frequent and fairer to all concerned.

360 feedback to the rescue?

These too are heavy, costly and mostly reserved for management. Subjects can 'game' the process by selecting who rates their performance. Finally participants don’t get to see the feedback directly, receiving a filtered version which has been “assessed” by a “superior”.

360 peer reviews are a step in the right direction but ultimately suffer from the same problems as regular Performance Appraisals i.e. they are too infrequent, not inclusive and can be gamed. Not much help for an Agile team.

HR meets Agile

15 years ago, I was attracted to Agile because it empowered people challenge ineffective and wasteful practices.

Thankfully, there is now a growing recognition that the traditional approach to Performance Management (TPM) doesn’t work and overall, possibly does more harm than anything else. TPM enforces hierarchical culture.

Not surprising then that the drive towards increased business agility has created a movement away from TPM to something that embodies the progressive values of modern organisations, such as respect, autonomy and engagement. That something is called... Agile Performance Management (APM).

The opportunity

So how does APM propose to answer the gnarly questions we started with? Firstly let’s separate some things out.

When it comes to pay, we begin by acknowledging the ideas popularised by Dan Pink about motivation. Pay people enough to take the issue of money “off the table” and whatever profit sharing we do is carefully considered to incentivise teams and collaborative working. There is still lots of work still to be done in this area, but at least it is starting from a better understanding of how people behave.

Next, let’s consider Agile for a moment. Fast feedback through customer collaboration enables teams to be given more autonomy, self-organising around clear customer objectives. In this setting teams are held to account for their performance and develop greater trust with their customers and stakeholders.

The greater transparency and accountability of Agile changes the game. It creates the possibility that teams can now be responsible for their own performance management. The team just needs a practical way to be able to accept this responsibility.

Enabling performance self-management

So how does this happen? A good place to start is by establishing team agreements that give the team ownership of their Performance Management process. This includes the ability to inspect and adapt it to their needs as necessary. They discuss and agree the competencies that are important to them as a team, the cadence of the feedback and the face-to-face interactions they will have at the end of each review cycle.

Assurances need to be provided around confidentiality and anonymity so that people are able to be candid and give meaningful feedback. Team members are also given full control of the feedback they have been given. This enables them to have confidence that no one else can see their feedback without their knowledge and prior agreement.

We provide appropriate coaching support to help team members act on the feedback they receive, and also for the team to call for help if it has a problem it cannot resolve.

Enabling the continuous exchange of feedback between everyone in the team creates a lot of feedback, so we need be really smart about how it is gathered. The first part is for team members to give competency ratings. Relative rating is light and fast, providing context for the supporting verbal feedback. Because everyone is exchanging ratings, the wisdom of the crowd can be employed to eliminate individual bias.

Carefully formulated commendations and recommendations recognise great competency behaviours and suggest ways in which people can improve. Capturing feedback throughout the review period when behaviours are observed and relevant makes it more meaningful and less onerous.

Appropriate visualisations provide a way into face-to-face conversations that develop an individual team member’s competencies and those of the whole team. The nature of these conversations having been agreed by the team up-front.


The traditional approach to Performance Management is ineffective and a poor fit for Agile teams. Sadly, 360 peer reviews aren't much help either.

An Agile approach to Performance Management is one that is aligned with the principles of respecting people, fast feedback and learning. It would be inclusive, frequent and treat everyone equally. With appropriate support, it is possible to remove the need to have any one person responsible for Performance Management, eliminating a further impediment to team self-organisation.

TeamSense makes the frequent exchange of meaningful feedback between team members viable. Individual and team competencies are made visible and provide a way into conversations that drive improvement. It enables Agile teams to take responsibility for their own Performance Management. 

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Armin Trost: The future [of HR] is agile

Highly relevant keynote by Prof Dr Armin Trost at the 2015 HR Summit in Vienna...

Key points:
  • Agile HR is a movement away from "central planning and control" towards "people centric enablement"
  • Don't make existing HRM any more complicated!
  • Keep to three simple principles: Embrace diversity, empower people and allowing them to learn from the consequences of the work (through direct feedback from their customers)
His call to action resonates nicely with the Agile principles and values.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Saturday, 5 April 2014

InfoQ: Performance Appraisals - The Bane of Agile Teams

 Mike Mallete @ Agile Singapore
Great talk by Mike Mallete discusses the why performance appraisals fail and what can be done instead - at Agile Singapore 2015