3 workshops to facilitate feedback

We have tried a number of ways to encourage feedback sharing at the team level at XING. Running a feedback-giving workshop or a feedback-giving retrospective turned out to be the go-to method. It is lightweight, customizable, direct, fast and powerful.

There are three formats of the workshop we have tried at least once.

  1. Warm seat
  2. Walk the talk
  3. Solo challenge + option with troikas

This post provides everything needed to get going with such a workshop: which format to select, how to prepare and what to expect.

Proposed formats are largely inspired by http://reviewing.co.uk/feedback.htm Copyright © Roger Greenaway.

Before running any feedback-giving workshop

  1. A non-violent communication, I-messages or any other kind of training that builds up the feedback-giving muscle, would be a great primer to introduce feedback-giving workshops.
  2. Talking to the team and inquiring if it makes sense to run such a workshop now, discuss different formats and pick one together.
  3. Ask the team members to start collecting notes so that they come to the workshop prepared. Being spontaneous and improvising does not always work.

Warm Seat

Feedback receiver is placed in the warm seat. Putting yourself in a vulnerable position is making the seat hot, however, being in control of the questions to ask, is making the position less intimidating or warm. The feedback receiver selects what kind of questions to ask from the set of questions prepared by the facilitator upfront.

The rest of the group provides insights using prepared in advance notes in order to answer the question raised by the feedback receiver.

There is a limit of three questions per feedback receiver.

Here is a list of guiding questions the facilitator can come up with

  • What do you appreciate when working with me?
  • What could be my next professional challenge?
  • If I were to change one thing so that it would be more enjoyable for you to work with me, what would that be?
  • What is the one thing that you would like me to tone up?
  • What is the one thing that you would like me to tone down?

It is also possible to allow participants to come up with their own questions. However, at least for the first run of this workshop, I would propose to stick with the general questions prepared upfront so that both feedback givers and feedback receivers would know what is coming up and would not be caught off-guard by some specific questions which they would not be able to answer.

Once the feedback receiver has raised all the questions and made a couple of follow up questions to clarify details, if needed, the next person is moving into the warm seat. The next round of feedback-giving and receiving begins.

Every person on the team should get feedback during the workshop. Therefore the time per person should be calculated upfront and strictly adhered to.

The workshop should be wrapped up by an insights round:

  • What was especially surprising for me to hear?
  • What [if anything] would I be willing to try?
  • What is my main takeaway today?

On a software development team, the normal setup for such a workshop is the whole team.

The job of a facilitator before the workshop

  • Discuss the possibility of running feedback-giving workshop listing potential benefits and also potential risks. And the risks can be many: old conflicts can resurface, people may come unprepared and head into generalization land, the information is shared publicly and if someone on the team does not have a sensitive filter, discussion can escalate.
  • If there is a willingness to try, plan around 2 hours for this workshop for a team of 6 people.
  • Share and agree on the list of questions upfront.
  • Optionally prepare a Warm Seat token. For example an unusual but comfortable chair.

During the workshop

  • set the stage by designing an alliance for the workshop. Answer together the question: what kind of information should and should not be shared? An example set of rules could include no ranting, accusations, or generalizations, speaking only from personal experience, being specific, discussing behavior and not personal qualities, keeping it real when proposing improvements, suggest small incremental steps, keeping confidentiality, whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
  • make sure the rules are adhered to, the time limit per person is not exceeded, the content of feedback is in accordance with the designed alliance
  • suggest taking notes on behave of the feedback receiver and provide them after the workshop meeting. The workshop can be quite intense and having someone else taking notes could be helpful for a feedback receiver.
  • during the final round when people are sharing their insights, watch closely for forced promises, re-iterate that it is ok to simply say “Thank you for the insights, I need to reflect on them for a bit.” without promising anything.
  • Agree with the team when/if to follow up on this workshop

Choose Warm Seat format when

  • Everyone wants to be able to pass feedback to everyone in the team
  • The team is not afraid to share feedback openly. Everyone in the room will hear feedback points of others
  • The team is small (<7 people)

Feedback examples

  • I appreciate the fact that you have created such a helpful manual on testing the app, it was easy for me to start.
  • I appreciate it when you give a short update and then ask if we need more, it saves me from being overwhelmed with information.
  • I believe that your next professional challenge could be to conduct a presentation in front of the whole company. It seems you enjoy presenting a lot, I find them easy to follow, with an interesting storyline.
  • I believe that your next professional challenge could be providing a strategic plan for where we want to go with our process experiments. We already experiment a lot and yet sometimes I lack the bigger picture, where we want to land with our experiments.
  • I would feel more at ease during the team meetings if you would not look so angry when I am making jokes.
  • I feel that my time is not valued when you are coming to the team meeting late three times in a row. I would appreciate if you would plan to come 5 minutes earlier to the meeting, to make sure there is time to find the right meeting room.
  • I find your specific review comments great. They help me understand the app better and the coding style used in the company. Keep it up!

What to expect

  • some level of self-censorship. When the person is put into the warm seat and starts asking questions, everyone on the team hears the feedback she receives. Purely this fact leads to some level of self-censorship, in most cases, feedback givers want to limit the blast radius.
  • some level of group anchoring, especially if the team comes unprepared, with no feedback points written upfront.
  • sharing insights after all of the feedback rounds is easy, in the sense that everyone understands the context, and people normally do share what was the main surprise for them or what they intend to try.

Walk the Talk

The problem with the warm seat format is that it does not really work for bigger teams. For example when the team consists of 15 people, using the warm seat formal with 15 minutes per person will result in 4 hours only of feedback giving, plus consider the time needed for introduction and the wrap-up. Walk the talk format allows gathering most wanted feedback and yet to keep the time needed for a workshop under 2 hours.

Walk the talk format

  • is more intimate: feedback is shared in a pair
  • is designed to fit bigger teams
  • limits the feedback scope: not everyone will get feedback from everyone

Let’s assume that the team wants to invest around 2 hours in running feedback-giving workshop. Then there will be a maximum of 6 feedback-giving slots plus 15 minutes in beginning to set the stage and 15 minutes in the end to share insights. The 15 minutes slot per pair is then divided further into 2 7.5 minute slots — allowing both persons to have an equal chance of giving and receiving feedback. The roles of a feedback giver and a feedback receiver are flipped during the second 7.5 minutes slot.

The team which selects this format will need to decide in advance how to form pairs. For example, the team knows upfront that there will be 6 feedback-giving slots during the workshop. Everyone on the team selects 6 people who they would like to give and receive feedback from. Usually, these are the people we interact on a daily basis the most. These selections may not always match. For example, a person A selects person B to give and receive feedback from, person B may want to give and receive feedback from other 6 people. So expect and provide the room for some level of negotiation and bargaining. It is also possible that some people will not have a pair for all of the slots.

The questions to be used to drive each of the feedback-giving slots are provided by the facilitator and are the same as in warm seat example. These questions should be shared with the team up front.

The job of a facilitator before the workshop

  • Discuss the possibility of running feedback-giving workshop listing potential benefits and also potential risks.
  • If there is a willingness to try, find an appropriate room to host such a workshop. It should allow everyone in the team to form pairs and to have private discussions simultaneously.
  • Share and agree on the list of questions upfront. Make sure the questions are easily accessible during the whole workshop.
  • Discussion in the pair will be private and not facilitated except for adhering to the time limit. That is why the facilitator should take extra effort in Walk the Talk case to reiterate the need to provide feedback in a non-violent and actionable way.

During the workshop

  • set the stage by designing an alliance for the workshop. Answer together on the following question: what kind of information should and should not be shared?
  • make sure the rules are adhered to, the time limit per person is not exceeded
  • during the final round when people are sharing their insights, watch closely for forced promises, re-iterate that it is ok to simply say “Thank you for the insights, I need to reflect on them for a bit.” without promising anything.
  • Agree with the team when/if to follow up on this workshop

Choose this format when

  • The team is rather large and passing feedback everyone-to-everyone will take too long.
  • Not everyone in the team is comfortable sharing and receiving feedback openly within everyone on the team
  • There is a big special area available for the workshop.

What to expect

  • Discussion in the pair is not moderated, people normally (for better or for the worse) move to freestyle questions and a freestyle discussion.
  • It can be hard to keep the time limits of 15 minutes per pair and 7.5 minutes per person.
  • An intimate setting of a discussion in pairs allows for more directness and candor.
  • Sharing the insights round can be difficult. All feedback is shared in pairs and not team-wide, so part of the team is missing the context and providing it would be time-consuming and in general tricky. In this format more than in the other two formats, people end up skipping the insights round or sharing the bare minimum.
  • Some folks could get completely different feedback on the same aspect from different people. For example, one developer shared in the final round that in one pair he was asked to share more information about his work and in the other pair — to share less.

Solo Challenge

When selecting Solo challenge format feedback receiver has the least to do during the workshop and the most to do after it. During the workshop, her job is either to reject, accept or downscope the challenge provided by the team. And after the workshop to get it done.

Here is how the format works.

Someone from the group volunteers to be the first one to be challenged. The rest of the group comes up individually with challenge ideas.

Requirements for a challenge:

  • the challenge should trigger the person to either improve in the area where you believe she needs to improve or to develop further stronger sides
  • the challenge should be doable and tangible. It should be possible to say after some time whether the person completed the challenge or not.

The rest of the group presents its challenges and vote for the best one.

Feedback receiver provides feedback on the challenge — whether she is open to the most voted challenge or to any other challenge in the list. If not open to any challenge listed, optionally, the feedback receiver can explain why she is not open to any of the challenges listed.

Next round begins with the next person moving into feedback receiving role.

The workshop ends with an insights sharing round.

Challenge examples

Some of the better examples

  • Improve coding skills → Create three new automated tests within the upcoming three iterations.
  • Play a bigger role in the social team life → Plan and prepare the next team within this quarter.
  • Ask for more accountability → Within the next four weeks, when waiting for someone’s delivery, ask proactively when they would be able to provide it.
  • Take better care of yourself → Limit the time for project X to Y amount of hours this month. Delegate the rest to the team.

Sometimes the team would come up with more of a theme than a concrete challenge. For examples

  • Reduce work stress, take a break.
  • Think one step ahead
  • Be actively present

In these cases, either the feedback receiver or the facilitator need to boil them down to the core, what is really the job to be done here? What kind of challenge would match that theme? Which normally would end up being something like:

  • Reduce works stress, take a break → Within the next month play table football or take 20 min walk every work day.
  • Think one step ahead → When preparing a concept to discuss in a team meeting, criticize it yourself first. Define at least two downsides of the concept and describe two alternatives.
  • Be actively present → Within the next month, facilitate two team meetings. No phone on all other meetings.

Choose this format when

  • Everyone wants to pitch in ideas for a challenge to everyone else in the team
  • The team is not afraid to share feedback and brainstorm about areas to improve for someone else in the team out loud.
  • Instead of focusing on the past, the team would like to focus on the future.
  • Most people on the team like a challenge and are up to one!
  • Ideal team size 3–6 ppl.

What to expect

  • For obvious reasons, Solo Challenge generates a lot of action items.
  • Coming up with a challenge can be fun!
  • In our experience, it is the most stressful format from all listed.
  • Solo Challenge assumes some kind of follow-ups.
  • Solo Challenge is a great way to harness peer pressure to push each other to develop further.
  • Solo Challenge works nicely in an established and performing team where team members cheer for and support one another.

Solo Challenge in Troikas

Integrating the troika coaching format from liberating structures into the solo challenge makes it compatible with bigger teams. In this case, the whole group will be divided into smaller groups of three and those groups of three will be coming up with challenge ideas for each other. Then depending on the time that the team wants to invest in this workshop, the troikas will change N number of times. In our experience, this modification works well within communities of practice.

How it feels

I have been both a facilitator and a participant in these workshops. Here are my main insights:

  • Preparation before the workshop was making a big difference. When team members were coming with a set of notes, their feedback was succinct, easy to understand and to the point. The unprepared participants in many cases would simply mention — What she said. Having a set of prepared team members was giving me a feeling that this was a group of people who cared deeply for one another and valued each others time.
  • For the most part, there was an atmosphere of support, appreciation and even fun. Especially with the Solo Challenge format.
  • When I was in the role of the feedback receiver, I felt appreciated and valued. That I as a person was relevant and meaningful to this team. That my efforts were “seen”.
  • The level of honesty and authenticity from feedback givers side, openness, and defenselessness from the feedback receivers side surprised me. Surely, I was hoping for it as a facilitator still that was an awesome aha.
  • We made participation in these workshops voluntary. There was one person who decided not to join. In the retrospect, I believe it was the right decision to keep a can-do and not a must-do attitude. Knowingly deciding and taking the responsibility for joining the workshop was influencing the atmosphere in the room, there were just people who were looking forward to learning about one another from one another.
  • There is a lot of peer pressure and it takes a skill to harness the benefits without getting sucked into promising something simply to minimize the stress during the workshop.

Resources

This blog post is more of a manual than a blog post. Because we would like not only to share our experience but also to make it easy for everyone to try running the workshop. In order to minimize the prep work, feel free to use attached pictures as a guide. Or if trying to be even leaner, print them using A3 format. There is a pre-filled and a template picture for most cases. Design alliance and sharing insights are the same in all three formats. The questions picture is shared between Walk the talk and Warm Seat.

Take away

All of these workshops are designed in the way that they could fit one of the regular team retrospective slots. Having each their ups and downsides, depending on the situation we would recommend running all of them. In all cases, people said that it was a valuable time investment and many got interesting insights. If you end up trying one of the formats, let us know how it went in the comments below!


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Source: XING