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The Feedback Six-pack

What would your response be when asked: “What is one of the most important and yet under-utilized project management tools?”

Would it help to mention that it costs virtually nothing, fosters team building, project communication and direction for your project team, and is something everyone seeks on every project? Projects Managers usually answer either a project schedule, risk management plan, or Earned Value as the most important under-utilized tool. These are indeed valuable tools but not the correct answer in this case.

Need more clues? How do team members realize the value of their performance? How do project managers realize the same? What sets precedents and expectations for future work and is the primary driver for performance improvement? It is feedback!

The Value of Feedback

Have you ever been curious about your performance? How many times has a vendor sent you a survey after selling you a product or performing a service for you? Good or bad, people enjoy knowing how they are performing.

Feedback is important because it provides the recipient with an opportunity to learn how the project manager (someone other than his immediate functional manager) perceives his work performance, which is often too specialized for the functional manager to provide constructive feedback.

Giving feedback to project team members during the project bridges the gap between feedback sessions that are held with their immediate management and provides a type of “compass” they can use for navigating through the project.

Feedback is also important because it fosters open communication with the project member. A by-product of providing this individual feedback is a demonstration to the recipient that trust and respect are essential elements of project team building. This encourages the recipient to give feedback to the project manager (after all, we all need performance feedback). This also gives the project manager the opportunity to demonstrate via behavioral modifications the effect of the team members’ feedback on her work.

Project managers should never think of feedback as a benefit to themselves; it is primarily about the recipient. Project managers will receive their return on investment when that person works for them again. If all project managers in the organization provide feedback correctly, at some point, all project managers will ultimately benefit.

Practitioners of feedback commonly claim that feedback holds a different value than does a gift or a raise. This, however, doesn’t at all mean that it is less useful as a motivation or reinforcement tool. In fact, feedback is not any less valuable, any less valid, or any less important than say, a raise.

Feedback Six-Pack

As a project manager, it is important to remember that the very act of giving feedback places lots of responsibility on the provider. The sole purpose of this powerful tool is to provide a supportive and timely perspective toward individual performance improvement.

Wise people ask key questions before beginning important tasks. So, before giving feedback, ask yourself these six important questions: who, what, when, where, why and how. This is the “Feedback Six-pack.”

  • Who am I giving this feedback to? To a close friend or to a colleague who I often conflict with? Remember that feedback can also be given vertically (management needs feedback, too!).
  • What kind of information am I about to communicate (good or bad)? What am I “really” trying to say? Stick to the facts.
  • When is the best time to catch her? When is she likely to be the least busy so that she can give me her full attention? When in doubt, schedule a 15-minute meeting with her. As a memory aid, consider using project milestones as a trigger that feedback is due.
  • Where is the best place to conduct this information exchange? Keep in mind that you want the person to be relaxed; choose a place accordingly.
  • Why am I doing this? It is crucial to never lose sight of this. Give someone feedback that’s bereft of sincerity, and you can expect it to be worth nothing.
  • How would I want this feedback given to me? Everyone is different, but sometimes knowing how you would like this kind of information presented to you could make a big difference in how you present it to others.

Timing is everything!

No matter what type of feedback you are planning to give, timing should be considered. Feedback should be provided timely, as close to the actual event as possible. Don’t wait! Remember, sincere people will not wait for a predetermined time to give feedback. This especially holds true when considering recognition; it should be paid on the spot, possibly in front of the team (if feedback in front of others is acceptable to the recipient).

Consider anchoring positive feedback to a positive mood. For example, don’t catch the person when he is in the middle of fighting a tremendous, highly visible, stress-creating fire, or you are drastically increasing the risk of it not being well received. At the same time, asking the receiver to describe the barriers that led to a critical deadline being missed is best done during a quiet time.

At the same time, if your project team members do not receive timely performance feedback regarding their efforts, there’s the risk that this could negatively impact your project’s (and, if compounded, your company’s) likelihood of success, which could foster lower morale and create a higher turnover.

Giving Feedback

The ways to give feedback range from formal or informal. In other words, it can be done in written form (formal) or verbal form (informal). Examples range from a comprehensive commendation written on company letterhead to a simple compliment in the cubicle aisles. No matter which method you use, though, be specific, be sincere and, most importantly, remember that the feedback is meant to help.

One risk Project Managers face is having our feedback come across as overly harsh or critical. We need to be supportive when giving feedback. This creates a more receptive atmosphere and increases the likelihood of more open and active information exchange.

We also need to ensure that our feedback is not distorted or misinterpreted. When speaking face to face or over the phone, a short recap of the recipient’s understanding of the feedback presented and any issues addressed during the session can accomplish this.

Just as you would do if you hired a DJ for your brother’s wedding, don’t judge people on just one event or one day of work. Everyone has a bad day occasionally. Give people the chance to show you that they are just having a bad day; allow them the opportunity to fix any mistakes.

Reviewing the “Feedback Six-pack” will greatly assist you in the structure and delivery of your feedback. This approach is low Risk and high yield. Remember that feedback should not be extra work, but as necessary work — and the professional responsibility of the project manager.

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