We know the importance of quick feedback cycles in our builds so we can fail fast and get reactions from the end-user. But sometimes agile teams forget the importance of gathering responses from other team members. This article details several methods for eliciting feedback, as well as how to pick what's right for your team.
Agile teams emphasize the importance of feedback loops, from pair programming to unit tests to continuous integration and other agile development processes. We know the importance of quick feedback cycles in our builds so we can fail fast, and feedback from the customer or end-user. But sometimes even agile teams forget the importance of feedback from other team members.
Direct feedback from your team members helps bring to light things that make the team go faster, as well as the things that might be slowing the team down. It can call out areas for improvement you might have missed, and other team members who have struggled with the same issues can provide advice on how to overcome these challenges.
Exploring Different Styles of Feedback Sessions
On our development team, we were pretty good at gathering feedback in our builds and with our users, but not so great when it came to giving each other feedback. If a new team member joined, they might ask for feedback after a few weeks and maybe receive some from one or two other team members they worked closely with, but this was often a one-time event.
The only other time our team members, who included managers, provided feedback to one another was right before yearly reviews. A team member would send an email to the team requesting feedback for the past year so that at their review they could better discuss their achievements and what they needed to improve. Team members would rack their brains trying to think through the entire past year.
This lack of consistent feedback frequently came up in our retrospectives, and we would always acknowledge it and say that we’d make a conscious effort to be better about giving each other feedback … yet in the next retrospective, there it was again, unresolved. It was clear we needed an action item to force ourselves to give feedback to each other on a consistent basis.
The two of us paired on this action item to plan the “forced feedback” sessions. We began by seeking advice from other teams who had implemented their own feedback sessions to find out what worked well for them, in hopes of finding a structure that would work best for our team. We talked with several other teams, and they all had different approaches:
Longer-form feedback sessions: These sessions last thirty minutes. Person A gives feedback to person B for fifteen minutes, then they switch and person B gives feedback to person A for fifteen minutes.
“Speed dating” style: This method consists of three rounds of eight-minute sessions (four minutes giving feedback, then switching). One group stays where they’re sitting, and the other group rotates through the people sitting.
360 style, option 1: Break up into groups of five or six people. Create a card wall (or digital story board) where each column is titled with the name of a group member. Spend five minutes writing down feedback on sticky notes (or creating digital cards) for each person, and place them in the columns. After the cards or stickies are done, discuss each person's feedback with the group.
360 style, option 2: Each person asks five other people for feedback before the session. At the actual session, each person takes a turn discussing the feedback they received, and everyone in attendance has the opportunity to add to it. This would give an opportunity for people to reflect on and digest the feedback they received. However, it can put someone in a vulnerable position and requires a lot of trust in the group.
360 style, option 3: The entire team gets together and each person takes turns receiving feedback from the entire group. This, of course, can also put someone in a vulnerable position.
Being conscious of our team's history of reluctance with giving feedback, we didn't want to choose a style that might make people uncomfortable and put them off from the beginning. We also needed something lightweight and easy to follow. The longer-form feedback sessions seemed like they might be tough (because fifteen minutes is a long time to give feedback to one person), and the 360-style sessions might make team members uncomfortable. So we chose the “speed dating” style for its more casual atmosphere and shorter time demand. To help create an even more relaxed atmosphere, we decided to bring in breakfast for every session as well.
We have retrospectives every other Thursday, and we decided to hold the feedback sessions the day after our retrospectives. We reasoned that people would be in a feedback mindset after the retrospective, but holding it the next day rather than the same day would prevent feedback overload. This would also keep it a completely separate activity from the retrospective.
Lessons Learned for Effective Feedback Sessions
We wanted to make sure every team member participated. However, some team members were new to the team or didn’t think they could provide quality feedback. In order to make them feel included, we chose to not limit the conversation to traditional feedback. Some of the most helpful feedback isn’t necessarily “feedback.”
We found discussing related topics, such as goals and recommendations for how to achieve these goals, proved just as valuable, especially for those new team members. We even had a team member participate in the feedback session during his very first week. It turned out to be a great opportunity to discuss the future with other team members in different roles. They talked about how they envisioned they might work together and what expectations they had for each other's roles.
Some team members had not worked directly with each other, so providing feedback seemed difficult, but once the discussion began, it came very naturally. In fact, sometimes having someone who was further removed from that person’s daily work gave a different perspective of performance and provided insight into how those interactions were perceived by others.
We found it helpful to have the receiver specify the areas in which they were most interested in receiving feedback. This could be a specific story or task they worked on, or something more general, such as "How effective am I at spreading knowledge across the team?"
We initially held our sessions without tracking which two people had already “dated.” We quickly realized that the same people were giving feedback to each other and we needed to start marking down who had already spoken to whom. For this, we created a “pair stairs”-style matrix.
Sometimes we were tempted to skip feedback sessions in lieu of “more important work,” but we knew that holding sessions consistently was key to establishing a culture of feedback on the team. We wanted people to get into a mindset of giving feedback as a part of their normal workflow.
Now that we’ve had several feedback sessions, our team is starting to adopt the feedback culture. Our teammates are more regularly asking for feedback, such as just after they’ve paired with someone on a story.
If your team struggles with feedback but doesn’t know how to start, just try the simplest approach that gets people talking. The most important thing is to start the conversation. You might try something that doesn’t work very well in the beginning, but just keep iterating. It's the agile way: fail fast, and make corrections.