The fundamentals

Creating feedback loops in growing organizations

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

I often work with small purpose driven organizations that are punching far above their weight. They tend to have grown organically, are innovative, ambitious, driven and going faster than they ought to be able to.

One common challenge they run up against as they move from being a team to being an organization is the loss of visible feedback. They used to be able to tell how people felt about something because well – they were in the same room, or because they were the people doing everything.

As they add specializations and sub-teams they gradually lose access to these natural feedback loops. People no longer get to see the consequences of their decisions because they get implemented or experienced in other parts of the organization.

Feedback and reactions organically start to swirl in silo'ed conversations, adding to angst rather than systemic understanding.

This challenge is solvable. It needs intentional listening and feedback mechanisms. The ability to name, own, and process feedback (emotions, ideas, and reactions) is the bedrock of both effective individuals and effective organizations.

Here are 4 tips to get you started.

1. Listening is a mindset

Listening – effectively, deeply, and in a way that unlocks action – is a mindset. It’s not a tool, it’s not a system, it’s not a solution (although it can include those things).

When I listen to you I need to be willing to suspend my judgement. In that moment the entire cacophony of my thoughts and reactions (that’s crazy, how can you even think that, I would never do that, I have a solution for this...the list goes on) is irrelevant.

All that matters in my belief that what you feel and experience is valid and true for you. I am not offering you my agreement. I am offering you my undivided, un-judging attention and contemplation.

As a leader you are setting the tone and inviting your organization to use the listening and feedback mechanisms as a way to experience perspectives that are fundamentally different than their own. As we expand our collective perspective the solutions we design and the ideas we come up with are bound to be more creative and more resilient.

2. Listening can be a tool, but it’s best done in conversations

Here are two types of dialogues I recommend leaders institute:

Listening dialogues with their directs:

One-on-ones and team meetings that are focused on the work at hand, about decisions, about moving forward and getting unblocked are the bread and butter of our work. Most leaders I know do this and do it well. In addition to these I ask them to set up quarterly meetings with all their directs where their role is to solely listen. Not to tell, not to solve, but to ask and understand. Here are sample questions you can explore in these meetings:

  • Where are you at?
  • What do you see?
  • What do you wish I was seeing?
  • What is one thing I could do to support, unblock or help you?
  • What is one thing I could stop doing to help you?

It can take a while for people to believe that they can be honest in these conversations without it having consequences. So give it time, make it safe, and back it up with action.

Two-way dialogues with skip level staff:

The goal in these conversations is for you to get a sense of what the team is seeing, feeling, and experiencing: What is getting in the way of work? How are recent decisions impacting execution? What do they think would generate impact?

It is also your chance to share what you are seeing and thinking, what you are learning, and what you are wrestling with.

The one thing you should NOT do as a result of these conversations is cut out your directs by committing to action or making decisions in these dialogues. Simply listen and learn, and then take these reflections back to your own team to get their perspective on it. The goal is to expand perspectives at every level.

3. Tools can accelerate the process

Feedback tools have come a long way in their simplicity, design, and cost-effectiveness. Finding a tool that is light, affordable, and a good fit for your needs can be a great way to get a timely pulse on how people are feeling and thinking.

Here are some vendors in the space that you can explore: TinyPulse (designed specifically for light, pulse surveys; includes gratitude as an emphasis); Reflektive (engineered more for within team feedback and alignment); and CultureAmp.

Make sure people understand that kindness is non-negotiable. Feedback is heard best when it is expressed in a generative manner (as opposed to airing of grievances and criticism). I often invite people to use the following framework when asking for and giving feedback (from the Achievement Habit by Bernard Roth):

  • I like… (what actions, outcomes, and approaches do I like).
  • I wish… (what am I experiencing that I wish worked a little differently).
  • I wonder… (what questions and ideas could help us experiment and improve).

4. Don’t make it a thing

Make it clear to your team that the goal here is to have timely data that everyone can use to adjust and adapt what they are doing. This is not an engagement survey, it will not result in big, giant initiatives that the organization does not have the capacity to support.

It’s a feedback loop, and its goal is to help each person (starting with leaders) have access to timely data that can influence the how and what of their work. That’s it.

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