Why not try feedforward?

Communication  Leadership
21 March, 2016

Shift the focus from past failure to future success

We have recently rolled out our annual review process for the year. Over the next few weeks, we will be spending time with our team members in detailed discussions on their performance for the year gone by. This is also when we step back to take stock of the larger picture, reflect on all that has taken place and plan ahead.

As leaders, being able to set the tone, not just for meaningful dialogues at the time of reviews, but authentic conversations (especially the more difficult ones) on a more regular basis, is absolutely critical. Getting better at being able to offer constructive feedback is something that most of us are probably constantly working towards. Many of my messages too have focused on the need to become more collaborative, create a culture where we can agree to disagree, listen closer and stop being passive aggressive. And yes, implementing some of this can certainly help make your conversations more open and deeper and by extension, hopefully, your relationships stronger.

But that said, today, I’m going to ask you to think about feedback differently.

As you would probably agree, despite the efforts that you may make, there are some fundamental issues with the very concept of feedback that you can’t change. As leadership thinker and executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith (you can follow him on Twitter @coachgoldsmith), puts it, feedback “focuses on the past, on what has already occurred – not on the infinite variety of opportunities that can happen in the future”. So, even the best intentioned feedback ends up being “limited and static, as opposed to expansive and dynamic”. The problem isn’t with how you deliver the feedback – which is what we have been mostly focused on developing – it is with the base assumption that feedback needs to be focused on what has already taken place.

Drawing from this, my message this week is on why, rather than just feedback, we should give ‘feedforward’ a try.

What is feedforward?

Feedforward, a spin on the traditional feedback approach, has been pioneered and popularised by Goldsmith. As the name suggests, feedforward encourages participants to focus their discussions on suggestions for the future and offering to help the other person as much as they can, rather than revisiting the past and pointing out what didn’t work.

Why can this be so powerful? Quite simply, because it focuses the conversation around what you can do to make change possible.

This shift towards growth and development, over sinking into a passive-aggressive tug of war on whether or not the ‘constructive’ feedback is agreed on, is the power of feedforward. It also, by design, places the manager – the person who would be typically sharing feedback – in the role of a coach.

Goldsmith has many years of research that back his findings on why feedforward works so well. Here are some of the reasons why he suggests you give it a try. They can also help guide you on where best to start adopting this approach.

1. We can change the future

We can’t change the past. Feedforward helps people envision and focus on a positive future, not a failed past. Athletes are often trained using feedforward. By giving people ideas on how they can be even more successful (as opposed to visualising a failed past), we can increase their chances of achieving this success in the future.

2. It can be more productive to help people learn to be “right,” than prove they were “wrong”

Negative feedback often becomes an exercise in “let me prove you were wrong”. This tends to produce defensiveness on the part of the receiver and discomfort on the part of the sender. Feedforward, on the other hand, is almost always seen as positive because it focuses on solutions – not problems.

3. Feedforward is especially suited to successful people

Successful people like getting ideas that are aimed at helping them achieve their goals. They tend to resist negative judgment.  Many successful executives respond to (and even enjoy) feedforward.  These same people would not have had such a positive reaction to feedback.

4. Feedforward can come from anyone who knows about the task

It does not require personal experience with the individual. For example, if you want to be a better listener, almost any fellow leader can give you ideas on how you can improve. They don’t have to know you. Feedback requires knowing about the person. Feedforward just requires having good ideas for achieving the task.

5. People do not take feedforward as personally as feedback

In theory, constructive feedback is supposed to “focus on the performance, not the person”. In practice, almost all feedback is taken personally (no matter how it is delivered). Feedforward cannot involve a personal critique, since it is discussing something that has not yet happened! Positive suggestions tend to be seen as objective advice – personal critiques are often viewed as personal attacks.

6. Feedback can reinforce personal stereotyping and negative self-fulfilling prophecies

Feedforward can reinforce the possibility of change. Feedback can reinforce the feeling of failure. Negative feedback can be used to reinforce the message, “this is just the way you are”. Feedforward is based on the assumption that the receiver of suggestions can make positive changes in the future.

7. Most of us hate getting negative feedback, and we don’t like to give it

In many 360 degree reports things such as “provides developmental feedback in a timely manner” and “encourages and accepts constructive criticism” both always score near the bottom on co-worker satisfaction with leaders. Leaders are not very good at giving or receiving negative feedback. It is unlikely that this will change in the near future.

8. Feedforward can cover almost all of the same “material” as feedback

Imagine that you have just made a terrible presentation in front of the executive committee. Your manager is in the room. Rather than make you “relive” this humiliating experience, your manager might help you prepare for future presentations by giving you suggestions for the future. These suggestions can be very specific and still delivered in a positive way. In this way your manager can “cover the same points” without feeling embarrassed and without making you feel even more humiliated.

9. Feedforward tends to be much faster and more efficient than feedback

An excellent technique for giving ideas to successful people is to say, “Here are four ideas for the future. Please accept these in the positive spirit that they are given.” With this approach almost no time gets wasted on judging the quality of the ideas or “proving that the ideas are wrong”.

10. Feedforward can be a useful tool to apply with managers, peers, and team members.

Rightly or wrongly, feedback is associated with judgment. This can lead to very negative – or even career-limiting – unintended consequences when applied to managers or peers. Feedforward does not imply superiority of judgment. As such it can be easier to hear from a person who is not in a position of power or authority.

11. People tend to listen more attentively to feedforward than feedback.

One participant in a feedforward exercise noted, “I think that I listened more effectively in this exercise than I ever do at work!” When asked why, he responded, “Normally, when others are speaking, I am so busy composing a reply that will make sure that I sound smart – that I am not fully listening to what the other person is saying I am just composing my response. In feedforward the only reply that I am allowed to make is ‘thank you’. Since I don’t have to worry about composing a clever reply – I can focus all of my energy on listening to the other person!”

Key to making feedforward work is to focus on the future. Try to avoid the bias to judge or critique. Listen as much as you can. And ask how you can help.

This is not to suggest that you replace feedback entirely with feedforward. There is tremendous merit in reviewing what has taken place and leveraging that to learn from and plan ahead. The question is how to make this more robust and focused on what happens next. Professors Hattie and Timperley suggest using three different lenses – “where am I going (feedup), how am I going (feedback) and where to next (feedforward)”. And incorporating all three of these questions systematically in your approach can make your discussions much more powerful.

So, do give feedforward a try during your discussions this year. For those of you who have already experienced it – it would be great if you could share your thoughts with our team.


  • Suneet Solanki says:

    Very relevant suggestions. The term ‘feedforward’ is new to me but the concept of discussion around shaping up the future has always been very useful. I’ve tried it actively during a couple of sessions in the past. As mentioned rightly, the most powerful aspect of feedforward is that the manager becomes an active part of our journey as a coach and mutual responsibility starts playing a big role cognitively.


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