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Open feedback as a gift

Someone writing on six Post It notes

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to build high-performing teams: specifically, teams that build great products that I would also enjoy to be a part of. An incredibly productive team that also happens to be full of jerks is not something I’m particularly interested in replicating; I care about building meaningful things well in a resilient, nurturing environment. As well as being nicer places to work overall, these kinds of teams tend to have lower churn (people tend to stay for longer) and higher quality end products (the people who build things really care about what they’re building).

One of the most important things I learned working for Corey Ford at Matter Ventures was that a culture of open feedback is a core part of building a supportive culture. If people are to do their best work, they have to receive constructive feedback from their colleagues well; they also have to be able to give it openly. A team that’s stewing about friction they’re encountering without being able to talk about it in a way that might lead to resolution is one that’s highly likely to burn out.

One of the tools we used at Matter, which I believe was inspired by the famous Interpersonal Dynamics class at Stanford Business School, was a simple way to give and receive feedback on a regular cadence. I’ll describe the Matter version, which was face-to-face, and then discuss how I’ve adapted it for remote working.

By the way, Corey is an expert at this; he now runs Columbia University’s Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program for news executives, which is a giant opportunity if you’re in the industry. Regardless of the kind of organization you work in, you want him to help with your organizational culture.

In-person feedback.
Time to complete: 30 mins

Two people — Person A and Person B — sit opposite each other. Each has twelve square Post-It notes of a particular color; Person A might have twelve yellow Post-Its while Person B might have twelve blue Post-Its.

They set a timer and spend roughly fifteen minutes writing privately:

  • Three Post-Its giving themselves positive feedback. What’s something that went well?
  • Two Post-Its giving themselves deltas: what’s something they wish they could change?
  • One Post-It describing how they’re feeling about their work overall.
  • Another six giving the other person feedback in the same pattern: three positive, two deltas, and one that describes their overall feeling about their working relationship with that person.

Post-Its should always be written in a thick pen like a Sharpie, which forces brevity. Each one should be as simple as a headline, with the author’s name in the bottom corner.

Then the participants take turns to reveal their Post-Its.

  • If Person A starts, they start with their feedback to themself first, revealing each Post-It one by one, and describing it a little bit more than is written in the headline.
  • Then they continue onto their feedback for Person B, revealing and explaining each Post-It one at a time. Person B must remain silent except to ask clarifying questions.
  • At the end of Person A’s Post-Its, Person B just says “thank you”. No rebuttals are allowed.
  • Then you swap: Person B presents their Post-Its in the same way, and Person A says “thank you” at the end.
  • Each person takes the feedback Post-Its that the other person has written for them.

There are a few obvious pitfalls, which should be explicitly called out at the beginning of explaining this kind of session for the first time:

  • Don’t go “over the net”. This means don’t make assumptions about someone’s motivations or causation for a particular event. It’s totally fine to say, “when you did X it made me feel Y”; it’s not okay to say, for example, “you did X because you don’t care about Z”.
  • Be aware of other common cognitive biases.
  • Don’t interrupt the presenter.
  • Nothing leaves the room. No feedback should be discussed with anyone else.

Most importantly, when someone is giving you feedback, they’re giving you the gift of their inner mind: they’re speaking what might otherwise be unsaid, so that you can become aware of other peoples’ reactions and learn from them. The process should be taken and received in the spirit of gift-giving.

Therefore, protecting a safe space is vital. Crucially, managers should be prepared to receive honest feedback as well as give it, in the same spirit of gift-giving. If there is ever any blowback from feedback from a manager, or an adverse reaction, the space is no longer safe and the feedback is not effective.

This also can’t be a one-off, because comfort with giving and receiving feedback builds over time. So it’s best if everyone has a one-on-one feedback session with all the people they directly work with at least every few weeks.

Remote feedback.

Obviously, there are no Post-Its directly in a Zoom call, and collaborative whiteboarding services tend not to have a function that allows you to write in private and then reveal your sticky notes one at a time. It’s also awkward as hell to write on a paper Post-It and hold it up to the camera as you speak.

I’ve experimented with a shared Google Doc or a whiteboard space, and I think the best version of this that I’ve come up with works as follows:

  • Each person starts in their own document. I prefer sticky notes a whiteboard space, but a Google Doc works pretty much as well with a little set up. You’ll want to make sure that positive feedback, deltas, and the summary notes are each well marked, perhaps with a “+”, “Δ”, and line respectively.
  • There is also a shared document that both people have open. Rather than screen sharing, each person is looking at this document during the sharing step.
  • Each person copies and pastes a note into the shared document as they are describing it, one at a time.
  • At the end, both people retain access to the document. Next time, a new document is started.

Otherwise, exactly the same rules apply.

This is just one tool. Obviously, establishing a participative, open, supportive culture requires a great many techniques, and is about an overarching mindset more than it is about any one type of meeting. But I’ve found this to be a very helpful part of my toolkit when I’m running teams. I hope you find it useful too.

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