Leveling Up Skill #13: Framing Feedback

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This post is part of a blog series called Leveling Up: A Guide for Programmers. The series covers skills you can use to learn faster, more easily, and more strategically as a programmer.

This is the third part in a three-part discussion of giving feedback:

  1. Evaluating Whether to Give Feedback
  2. Identifying Safe Opportunities for Feedback
  3. Framing Feedback (this post)

In the last post, we talked about when and to whom to give feedback. Now, let’s imagine that we have established that we’re communicating with someone who genuinely wants feedback to help them improve.

How can we frame our feedback to best help them improve?

Step 1: Agree upon specific goals.

Before I give feedback, I’d like to know: what does the recipient want to do well?

If I give someone feedback on an area where they did not specifically want to do well, then my feedback is more likely to completely surprise them or else seem irrelevant. This is not the kind of feedback I would give directly to someone’s face unless we had strong professional trust or they depended on me in some way.

So instead, I ask about the goals of the person or organization to whom I am giving this feedback. What are they trying to improve at right now? How would they like to be seen in the workplace?

Once we know what our recipient wants to accomplish, we can give feedback to help them accomplish it. In so doing, we demonstrate our shared goal of making them better in a way that is meaningful and supportive to them.

Step 2: Organize the feedback

So when I give feedback, I organize it according to the recipient’s goals. Usually they have given me 2 or 3 goals, and sometimes I add a couple of additional goals as “other things they might be interested in doing.” I use my judgment here. Maybe they want to be good at attracting more candidates and evaluating those candidates, and I also think that they would benefit from thinking about retention. I’ll tack that on. I have to be pretty sure they’d care about being better at this in order for me to add to the goals.

Now for each goal, I make two lists:

  1. Things they are doing that already max out their opportunity to be good at this thing (that is, things they should keep doing the way they are doing it to get closer to their goals)
  2. Things where they still have additional opportunity to be good at this thing (that is, things they can change to get closer to their goals).

So here’s our new terminology for feedback, because the things we think of as “negative feedback” would usually go into list number 2. But now we’re not talking about “positive things” and “negative things.” Now we have a direction that we are trying to move, and we have stuff to keep and stuff to change to move in that direction.

Example Feedback

Here is some example feedback that I gave to the organizer of a conference where I gave the keynote. I have anonymized it to protect the recipient’s privacy, but the feedback itself is almost verbatim what I said.

My feedback here is based on two things.

1) My understanding of your goals for the conference.
2) Some additional ways the conference could serve your team.

For your goals, I’ll list some places where I think you’re already maxing out your opportunity, as well as some places where you still have more opportunity to get closer to the goals. Then I’ll list some additional ways the conference could serve your team and some suggestions to do that, if you decide you’d like to head in these directions.

Goals: 

  • Get folks motivated about organizational change and the technical solutions that [company name] is building.
  • Empower folks to contribute to those changes and solutions, even if their job has traditionally been going through tickets without examining the broader picture.
  • Grow the conference—have it get larger and larger each year, and presumably appeal to a larger and larger group of folks from[company name].
Maxing Out Opportunity On:
  • Venue. The venue is fantastic and will continue to suffice for y’all even as the conference grows, which is excellent.
  • Enthusiasm in Leadership: The folks who worked to put this conference together clearly cared deeply about providing something useful for[company name]. Great job! As we discussed in person, I think this is in part because y’all chose to invest [company name] employees in the organization process, rather than outsourcing the process to an event planning contractor or some such group. I think that this was a very wise decision on y’all’s part :).
  • Remote Inclusion: Throughout the day, the coordination of a remote conference got better and better. Organizers were helping speakers field questions from all three office locations, and the video and audio seemed (to me) to be working OK, for the most part.
  • Talk Topics: The talks spoke to a wide range of disciplines and levels of experience. That’s excellent for getting everyone from product managers to ops people to developers to data analysts interested in what’s going on.
Additional Opportunity to Accomplish Goals On:
  • Mentioning in the program materials what kind of audience each talk is for.[company name] has folks from all sorts of career backgrounds at the conference, and the talks range from relatively general to very technical. I suspect that folks at[company name] might hear that it’s a DevOps conference and think “I am in product/design/some other function, this isn’t for me.” But if they see that the talks specifically say, for example, “This talk is for everyone who wants to get better at leveling up at their job” or “this talk is for developers and ops people who want to learn about API development,” then folks can gauge which talks are for them as well as figure out that the conference has things for them, too, even if they are not just ops people.
  • Personalization to [company name]. This may have happened in the break-out sessions and I just didn’t see it, but you may have an additional opportunity to folks directly connect what they’re learning to projects they’d like to work on. One way to do this would be to encourage[company name] speakers and lightning speakers to talk about a challenge they’re facing or a project they’d like to do at[company name], then pitch the crowd on talking about it during open spaces. Anyone who is interested can meet the speaker during open spaces and apply what they’re learning to the conversation about that. This could help teams introduce themselves to interested parties from other teams and start to build some cross-team communication in an organic fashion.
Additional ways the conference could serve your team: 
  • Demonstrate the progressive nature of the work at[company name] counteracting the narrative about “stodgy old insurance companies” so that your teams (especially tech teams) have an easier time recruiting, when they need to. In order for this to work, the talks would have to be accessible to folks outside of [company name]. This could mean posting high quality video/audio recordings of the talks to YouTube. Alternatively, it could mean inviting local students to attend the keynotes, even if the breakout sessions remain [company name]-only.
  • Create an opportunity for employees inside [company name] to build their skills at things like speaking, writing, and building relationships. I think that the opportunities you already have for folks to get involved in the conference can do a great job of helping folks build these skills, so my recommendation is only to play up that angle when you’re looking for folks to help out or speak :).

So what did we do in this feedback?

  1. We established the goals.
  2. We talked about places where the recipient is already maxing out their opportunity on reaching the goals.
  3. We talked about places where the recipient has additional opportunity to reach the goals.
  4. We talked about any additional goals that the recipient might want to think about.

I only add that fourth category if I’m quite sure that the recipient will care about this additional goal. If not, I leave it off and focus on the goals that the recipient has already given me.

Conclusion

Once we know that our potential feedback recipient does, in fact, want feedback, we want to frame that feedback in a way that is helpful to them. My strategy for this is to first find out what the recipient’s goals are, so I understand the qualities that are important to them.

At that point, I organize all of my feedback around those goals. Where are they already maxing out their opportunity to reach this goal? They should keep doing that thing. Where do they have additional opportunity to reach this goal? Making those changes will yield the highest returns on the recipient’s investment in reaching their goals.

In upcoming posts, we’re going to talk about soliciting feedback. But before we do, you already have some clues about what those posts will say. We have now spent the last three posts figuring out how to evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of offering feedback, how to tell if giving someone feedback will be safe for us, how to determine if that person really wants feedback, and what to find out from that person in order to give them the most helpful feedback.

What are we looking for from a potential recipient when we’re going through this process? Those things that make someone an ideal candidate for receiving feedback are an important part of the things that we ourselves want to do when we are soliciting feedback.

What might that look like? Stay tuned to find out :).

If you liked this post on framing feedback, you might also like:

The rest of the leveling up series

This budding series on behind-the-scenes preparation for things like podcasts, keynotes, and screencasts (still in progress)

This post on evaluating team members’ contributions to an inclusive culture

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