An Experiment in Soliciting Feedback

At one of the software development companies that I consult with we are encouraged to solicit a “Feedback Lunch” every so often. It is traditionally a one-hour lunchtime sit-down. I invite five or six members of the team to participate. Menlo has a flat organization system. I invite my peers to come and discuss what I’m doing well and where I can improve. This is not a meaningless exercise–the feedback that the team gives can lead to an upward renegotiation of my contracting rates and is a good way to gauge how I am valued as a contractor.

I decided that I wanted to shake up the normal model. I was going to follow the oft-repeated Menlo Innovations cultural maxim “Make Mistakes Faster”, and run an experiment. Here’s what I did:

After my 7 colleagues had arrived and sat down around the lunch table I announced that I had an activity. “We have about 50 minutes left and I’d like to spend the first part of that time trying a new activity. I want you to begin by pairing, and interviewing each other about me!” I prepared pre-printed index cards with same four questions on them:

  1. What does Ben do well?
  2. What does Ben do Badly?
  3. How would you like Ben to grow?
  4. What surprised you about Ben?

Interview Questions
I explained that we would take no more than 15 minutes to do the interviews. Each person would interview their pair partner, and then I would call time and they would swap roles. Afterward we would come together and begin the feedback process by reporting to the group about the results of their interviews. I set them to it and moved off a bit to the other end of the lunch space so that they could speak without me shadowing over them. It was quiet at first. But soon people got into their roles as Interviewers and Interviewees. There was a constant buzz of communication happening and I had them switch roles after about 5 minutes. After the second 5 minute session I brought everyone back together.

I explained that I wasn’t sure how the interviews would go, but I was happy with the sense of interest that I perceived them taking in the interview process. “Thank you all for trying that, now that everyone has been interviewed I thought we might report on our interviews.” Then Thomas mentioned “Everyone has been interviewed except for you!” Hmm, he was right. Of course it makes sense that I self-report to the group too, and it turned out to be a great segway into the group discussion. The group assumed the role of Interviewer and I was on the spot to begin answering the questions I had written for them. The group went down the list and asked me my questions. What do you do well? Badly? How do you want to grow? What surprised you about you? As I answered the questions I saw looks of recognition on many peoples’ faces as I mentioned some attribute or behavior that they had also noticed. This lasted for about 5-10 minutes and we still had about 25 minutes left.

The next things was to get the feedback from the group. I drew a quadrant onto a flipchat, one section for each of the interview questions (Good, Bad, Growth, Surprises). As people reported back on their interviews we scrawled out the feedback on sticky notes and stuck them up on in the corresponding quadrant of the flipchart. We used up almost all of our time having a lively discussion as people mentioned the interesting things gleaned from their interviews and we stuck the notes up on the chart. I finished the meeting feeling energized and excited to try out an experiment and to have it go so well. I think that I received some valuable insights into how the team views me as a consultant and also some ideas about how I can grow in my consulting practice.

We finished the session by taping down the sticky notes so that I could take the flipchart home without all the stickies falling off, and we debriefed for a few moments. There was some enthusiasm for the process that I had experimented with. Some people thought that the interviews did not particularly enhance what feedback they would have given. I also laid out a few of my reasons for wanting to try the experiment:

Feedback Flipchart

  • Interviewing each other instead of initially giving me feedback directly would lower inhibitions to saying difficult or contentious feelings.
  • People are busy and it’s difficult to find time to prepare to give much feedback so being interviewed would give them all a chance to reconnect with their opinions and thoughts about my work as a contractor.
  • We pair constantly at Menlo so it seemed fitting to try and conduct feedback in a paired manner.

Ideas for the activities came from Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great, which I have found to have some great ideas for team reflection. Also, thanks to the Menlo team for allowing me to experiment on them, and for giving me valuable feedback!

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