To most, “closing the feedback loop” may sound like nothing more than management jargon. As a matter of fact, it is. But behind every management buzzword, there usually lies a simple truth that we could benefit from paying a little attention to. This is the final part of my series on closing feedback loops. Check out the first two articles on products and on processes.
As I’ve explained in the previous articles, closing the loop is pretty quick when it comes to products – a little bit longer when it comes to processes. Here’s the kicker though – the feedback loop is even longer (and more difficult to close) when it comes to managing people and their teams.
In fact, here’s a disclaimer – if you’re in the business of managing and growing people, the feedback loop might never fully close at all. That means, it’s very likely that you never know how good a job you did. And, if you’re in this business, you have to learn to come to terms with that.
Sounds stressful? It is. But I believe the key to doing your job right is simply to truly care about people’s experience and growth in your organization, regardless of how it reflects on you publicly.
Closing the loop on people and teams (or die trying)
Just kidding. I don’t recommend you die trying to get the right feedback. There are a few things, however, that I might suggest to help you come close to understanding the impact of your work as a manager of people.
Conversations, Feedback, and Recognition (CFRs)
Conversations, feedback, and recognition (CFRs) are a concept that is discussed together with objectives & key results (OKRs) in John Doerr’s seminal book on the subject, “Measure What Matters“. While OKRs typically deal with how your processes work to contribute to organizational goals, CFRs are a great way to align people towards the same direction.
Traditional management perspective tends to favor periodic reviews. CFRs, alternatively, center on continuous feedback. That typically takes the form of regular 1-on-1s with your members. I can’t stress enough how important this is. It’s a great way to provide feedback to help your team improve, but it also works both ways. It’s an opportunity for you to get insights on how your recent initiatives and how work in general makes people feel, and that’s a primary measure of how well you’re doing.
Surveys can come in many forms – experience surveys, engagement surveys, and the least desirable of them all, exit surveys. I don’t personally believe periodic surveys are the best way to go about this as they become more of a must-do than an opportunity to speak one’s mind. As with any feedback, surveys are more effective when they’re done immediately after the fact. In addition to having the experience fresh in their minds, people likely make more of an effort to do it right when they don’t have to switch contexts.
Coming up with thought-provoking questions for your survey and finding the right balance between statistical (yes or no, or numeric) questions and open-ended questions could be key to getting meaningful and actionable feedback.
Also, like any of the feedback you explicitly get from people, surveys have to be taken with a grain of salt. People don’t always speak their mind and they don’t always speak truthfully. The good thing is, though, when they do, you know it’s something really material, and resolving the problem can be high impact work for you.
Following up on training
I remember once being asked by HR, upon request of our president, to provide some “evidence” that a few of the externally provided (read: expensive) training programs we had done over the year was actually effective. That was a tricky one. What kind of “evidence” does one provide for this? Exam results? Work metrics shooting up? The unfortunate fact is, training is one of those things that can have a definite positive impact on one’s work, but you never really know by how much.
There are a few ways to get some closure on this loop though. Surveys and assessments are a quick way to get feedback. But assessments are short-term and one could argue that you learn from failures as much as your successes. For the longer haul, I’ve come to realize that the way your career growth program is designed factors in a lot. If you build your training programs around that framework, it might just work. You would have a set of expected outcomes that, hopefully, are possible to measure.
Ultimately, training is only one factor, and a variable one at that, to how your staff’s skills and growth turn out. A lot is learned on the job, even more through self-learning efforts. That means the desirable (or undesirable) outcomes are always only partially tied to your training programs.
Why is this so complicated?
I have to close this by explaining why I think getting feedback in managing people is extra difficult. People are complex. Sometimes, they’re rational – sometimes, they’re emotional. They can say one thing and mean another. And, a lot of times, they simply don’t understand themselves very well in the first place.
I also believe that people, by nature, are in constant conflict – with other people, with nature, with authority and “the system”. But perhaps most often, they’re in conflict with themselves. Decision making is consequently not algorithmic as it is with machines and with software. Likewise, there’s no objective way to measure how people feel. If you think of the positive outcomes you want with people – satisfaction, competence, engagement – none of them really reflect in any numbers.
People make decisions and behave not according to a few conditions (as, say, software code does), but on a plethora of past experiences, present situations, and external factors.
So don’t blame yourself if someone in your team leaves or if someone isn’t performing according to expectations. However, it’s still important to reflect on the little things that might have contributed to it. It’s never just something you did, and it’s almost never nothing you did. So take the little bits of lessons learned and just hope to keep doing better.
Ending this series, I wanted to say that having a complete feedback loop is important in making the right decisions and improving the way we work. There are times, however, as in the case of managing people, when it may not be feasible to get completely meaningful feedback. In cases like this, you have to rely on your experience and a little bit of intuition to create your own loop.
In the end, the most important part of the loop is plugging whatever output back into the input. That means making sure that some action is taken on whatever feedback you receive and improving the results you create.