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.

Build a stronger team with the COACH Approach to leadership

We’ve recently redesigned a one-day workshop that helps leaders use a coach approach when leading or managing others. It’s called a COACH Approach to Leading and Managing and it’s been so successful, we thought you’d like in on some of the secrets.

Some folks I talk to are hesitant to try to “coach” their employees because they worry it requires a lot of rigorous training. Let’s start off by clarifying there’s a big difference between “executive coaching” and using a “coach approach” with your team members.

Executive coaches like the certified coaches here at Padraig have dedicated time to intensive study and specialized education with practise working with leaders. It’s our profession.

However, we help leaders use some specific coaching techniques so they can take a coach approach to leadership. You can learn these techniques quickly to help encourage and develop the best qualities of your team members.

What is the COACH Approach?

Basically, any coach approach means leaders move from telling people the answers to helping them find their own answers. We call our program The COACH Approach because COACH is an acronym for the steps to follow.

Specific steps aside, once you learn a few techniques and get in the habit of using them, your perseverance will pay off.

The two main things to remember when you want to try coaching your staff are:

  • Shift from solving problems to asking questions, and
  • Cultivate a sense of curiosity about everything.

For now, let’s keep that as the core technique – ask questions, don’t give answers, and be genuinely curious about the challenge and the person.

How does it help your leadership?

When you use our COACH Approach, your team will be affected in many positive ways. The best part? Not only do you bring out the best in them, but your leadership strengths are noticed when you have a well-functioning and effective team.

When staff are led by someone using a coach approach, we typically see some of these wins among team members:

  • They innovate – brainstorming new ideas, generating questions that lead to exploration of new methods
  • They’re self-reliant – instead of always seeking guidance or consulting the leader, staff solve their own challenges (coaching can help with figuring out barriers to success)
  • They are more confident – especially as they realize they can achieve success independently
  • They set goals – with coaching, team members will establish goals and set out to achieve success
  • They’re engaged – taking initiative, growing in confidence, and setting goals means staff are off the sidelines and contributing (not just when asked!)
  • They take responsibility – when team members are involved in goal setting and can take initiative they also own the solutions – and this means they have more accountability

Does that sound like a list of attributes you’d like to see with your team? Well, guess what? You’ll likely see that, and more, with our COACH Approach.

Over and over, we see that using a COACH Approach builds relationships and encourages effective communication at all levels. In this environment, team members are productive and work well together – which also leads to increased job satisfaction for everybody.

Adding the COACH Approach to your toolkit

So, how do you start using the COACH Approach?

The first thing to do is let the team member know that you’re thinking that a new approach might help with the challenge. If you just dive into using a coach approach, they might not know what’s happening and maybe even react negatively! If you’ve always been the boss with all the answers, and an advice-giving machine, it will be surprising and maybe uncomfortable for people when you stop doing that.

Share with the team member that you’re going to use a coach approach to help them work through this challenge. This means you’re not going to give them solutions or directions at this point, but rather than you’re going to ask a lot of questions to help them figure out for themselves what they need.

If a team member doesn’t understand how the COACH Approach to leadership explores issues with questions, all of your questions could feel like an interrogation. That’s why it’s important to be clear that you’re helping them discern what the roadblocks are so that they can figure out how to move past them.

Remember, too, that as you’re learning how to use the COACH Approach that you’re practising. You might not ask questions in quite the best way in these early days of trying these new techniques and it will be good if they know you’re trying something new.

For example, asking, “Why did you do that?” could come off as abrupt and implying blame. Asking, “Tell me more about what led you to do that?” may sound more interested and encouraging.

Here are some ideas for bringing a COACH Approach to your leadership:

  • Get the discussion started: Get clarification through questions like, “What would success look like when we’re done discussing things?” so your team members can sort out what needs to be done. They might brainstorm solutions and new approaches or what actions need to be taken. Sometimes they might realize they just need you to listen.
  • Think questions, not solutions: Remember, your role is to listen and question when you see opportunities to stimulate ideas, not to jump in and solve problems or give advice (even though that’s probably been the reality of your entire career!). Ask questions to help your team find their own answers.
  • Listen to learn and understand: Being eager to know more and curious will help you with asking questions that encourage valuable conversations. I often tell folks to silently start asking a question with, “I’m curious about…” If you hear someone say something interesting or unusual, find out more by asking something like, “You just mentioned XYZ. What else can you tell me about that?” might uncover more information than otherwise.
  • Stay quiet: It’s hard, but stifle any urges to chime in or direct things (even if discussion falls silent). As leader coach, you are helping the team uncover answers – not providing them. If you have to, pretend you’re not sure what the solution is and don’t fill in gaps in conversation because silence can be a really good thing. Let them ponder and work out what to do. You might be amazed by what they come up with when you sit through the uncomfortable silence for a while.
  • Use open-ended questions: Some questions lead to specific answers – very often yes or no – whereas open-ended questions result in unpredictable answers. For example, asking, “Were the research results good?” will likely get a yes or no answer (and many times people will answer in the way they anticipate is sought). Instead, ask, “What was the most interesting result from the research?” and you’ll get an opinion with ideas and facts; open-ended questions encourage discussion.
  • Check-in every so often: Make a point of checking in with the team member or team to see whether the COACH Approach is helping their exploration. Instead of asking, “Do you feel you’re making progress?” (the yes or no answer!), ask, “How are we doing toward your goal of XYZ?”
  • Re-establish commitment: As you’re winding down a conversation, confirm that there is commitment to solving the challenge. This could be as simple as asking, “After everything we’ve discussed, what next steps are you committed to taking?” or you can seek more clarification. For example, you could say, “I feel we’ve got to A,B,C. Would you agree?” You can also ask for further clarification, for example, what is the timeline for this or a deadline for completion.

Any time your team member is struggling, remember that using the COACH Approach will help you guide them to finding their own solutions. To do this, ask questions such as, “What would help you achieve this?” or, “What could make it easier to commit?” or, “What do you need to stay on track?”

There may, of course, be times you need to be a bit more directive. It’s fine to switch out of the coach approach, for example, to confirm the corporate deadline required for the proposed solution.

You could say, “We need to be sure that XYZ is complete by the end of the month. Can you commit to that deadline?” If you need to check in on accountability, ask, “What do you need to stay on track?” or, “What will you do to hold yourself accountable to that timeline?”

When to use a COACH Approach (and when not to!)

Add the COACH Approach as one more tool in your leadership toolkit. It is handy to have to use along with other tools, such as mentoring (sharing your experience to guide), directing (telling what to do) and teaching (telling how to do something).

Depending on the situation, you might employ other tools, like turning difficult conversations into Essential Conversations and building conflict around ideas.

With so many different leadership tools, how do you know when the time is right for using a COACH Approach? Because it helps your team members build on their strengths to achieve success, it’s best to use with a motivated team member who is ready for professional learning and growth.

For this reason, a COACH Approach works very well with high performers – especially those ready for a bit of a stretch. It is also ideal for situations that require innovation or a new approach.

Additionally, a COACH Approach can work well when problem solving is required, planning needs arise or goals need to be set. It can also work when someone is struggling with another team member and wants to figure out how they will address it.

It’s important to note there are times when a COACH Approach is not the best choice. For instance, if someone is learning a new skill. That requires teaching, mentoring or a directive approach.

Further, while a COACH Approach could definitely help with a struggling or under-performing team member who needs extra support, it is not a good approach for someone already at the point of disciplinary action.

I started today by talking about our new COACH Approach to Leading and Managing workshop.  If you think you and your team would like to try the COACH Approach, why not give us a call to explore whether this one-day workshop might work for you? It’s a great way to truly learn the techniques and get your team members supporting each other at the same time. 

COACH Approach to Leadership Journal

COACH Approach to Leadership Journal

Check out our recently released COACH Approach to Leadership Journal.  

The Coach’s Questions

What makes you hesitate about trying a coach approach? What would help you feel more confident in trying it? What would it take for you to dive in and give it a try?

You know, I always end my posts with some Coach’s Questions but rarely hear anyone’s answers. Please reach out to let me know (coach@padraig.ca) or even better, make a comment below so others can join in the conversation too!