Feedforward: what it is and why you should care

This week’s Coach’s Questions Blog is written by Padraig Coach,  Kathleen Cameron.

Think back to a time when you were feeling really proud of your work.

Now imagine that just as you were flying high on the satisfaction of a job well done, a colleague pointed out something you should do differently next time.

While the colleague was probably well-intentioned and wanting to help you improve, the bubble burst and you no longer felt confident and proud. In fact, you most likely felt self-doubt with a side of shame. You may have felt resentful, especially if you thought your colleague purposefully cut you down.

How could your colleague approach the conversation differently next time? Could they deliver advice on how to improve while keeping your motivation and self-confidence high?

What if YOU are the colleague who needs to give that feedback? Could you keep someone else’s motivation and self-confidence high while giving important feedback?

The answer is yes.

A Fresh Approach to Performance Conversations

Leadership expert Marshall Goldsmith originally coined the term feedforward to describe the process of providing future-focused suggestions with the intent of supporting success. This is in stark opposition to feedback, which is corrective in nature and focuses on the past and what’s already occurred.

While both approaches are designed to improve performance, feedback focuses on the past—creating feelings of shame and self-doubt; whereas feedforward brings attention to what can occur—creating a sense of possibility and growth.

We can’t change the past, but we can influence the future.

Why It’s Effective

Have you heard the phrase, “where thought goes, energy flows?” By focusing on the solutions, we’re encouraging a mindset of expansion, possibility and growth, which drives energy and motivation and at the same time, focusing on past problems drives energy to shame and regret.

In feedforward conversations we encourage colleagues to try new approaches they may not have considered for a task or goal. You share knowledge and help one another to do great work.

Feedforward also encourages conversations about what they might need to try the new approach. These conversations heighten partnership and contribute to positive morale and camaraderie among colleagues.

It feels good to support one another in a supportive, respectful, collaborative environment.

How to Implement a Feedforward Approach

Focus on development

Remember, you are delivering feedforward to support the other person’s success, not to deliver feedback on something in the past. Remind yourself of this before you initiate a feedforward conversation and get clear on why this is important for their success. Framing the conversation in your mind will help you stay focused on the goal.

Be collaborative

Just as your view of someone else’s growth and development can help frame feedforward, so can their willingness to hear you out. Check that they are in the right frame of mind to receive your suggestions and that it’s related to an area of development they consider to be important.

For example, you might want to start with something like, “I was admiring your work on X and had a couple suggestions that might make it even easier/better/stronger next time. Would you be interested in hearing them?”

Keep it specific

Instead of talking about broad ideas, discuss specific behaviours that can achieve a desired result. Or, if you want to start broad, make sure you break the desired outcome down into specific actions and approaches to support the bigger area of focus.

Do it in real time

Look for opportunities to provide feedforward in day-to-day interactions. Relevant, real-time feedforward can greatly impact someone’s success in implementing new skills, behaviours and approaches.

Practice, practice, practice

Early first attempts at feedforward may feel uncomfortable if this is a new approach for you. Before you jump in, think about the feedforward you want to deliver. Practice what you want to say and consider how it may be interpreted. Get comfortable with how you want to initiate the conversation and deliver the message.

Understand limitations

While feedforward can be very effective at engaging people when focusing on growth and development, it’s not appropriate for all performance conversations. Sometimes a direct, honest conversation about past performance is necessary to address an issue at work. Use your best judgment when deciding on approach.

What a Feedforward Approach Conversation Looks Like

Here is how a feedforward conversation might unfold:

Ellen: Thanks for giving the stakeholder presentation today. Were you happy with how it went?

Bob: Yeah, I think overall it went fairly well. I did feel people losing interest when I was going over the feedback we’ve received on the project though.

Ellen: Is there anything you could do differently at the next presentation to keep them engaged?

Bob: Yeah, I’m not sure. I need to give it some thought.

Ellen: Have you considered opening the floor for discussion on one or two key feedback items? It might help the stakeholders feel more involved in the presentation and give them an opportunity to feel heard.

Bob: I like that idea. I’d need to consider how to keep us on track with time, but with the right planning that could really work.

Ellen: Let me know if you need any help with that. I’m happy to share what’s worked for me in the past.

Note that the feedforward process sees Ellen focused on helping Bob, not judging him on how the presentation went.

It can be helpful to think of feedforward in three stages:

  1. What went well – in this case, overall Bob is happy with the presentation
  2. How could it be even better – Bob could keep the audience more engaged
  3. Where to next – Ellen suggests a strategy for more active audience participation next time

The feedforward approach is about achieving the next goal with success, not simply scrutinizing past efforts.

Coach’s Question

How could feedforward build growth and development on your team? What do you find challenging about this approach? How could you try feedforward today?

Kathleen Cameron

Kathleen Cameron is an executive coach who integrates emotional intelligence, leadership, and personal development to help her clients achieve better results at work and in life. In addition to being a Padraig Associate, Kathleen manages her own practice and serves as the Director of Public Relations for the Edmonton Chapter of the International Coach Federation.

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