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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

On Feedback

On Feedback post image

I’m not a native English speaker, which basically means my English is far from perfect. Not a surprise, eh? Anyway, it happens sometimes when one of natives I’m talking with corrects me or specifically points one of mistakes I keep making.

And I’m really thankful for that.

I’m thankful most of the time such feedback happens instantly so I can refer to the mistake and at least try to correct it somehow.

This is what happened recently when one of my friends pointed one of pronunciation mistakes I keep making. It worked. It did because feedback loop was short. It worked even better because it was critical feedback. I didn’t get support for all the words I pronounce correctly. It was just a short message: “you’re doing this wrong.”

Of course it is my thing to decide whether I want to do something about this. Nevertheless I can hardly think of positive feedback I could receive that would be that helpful.

When you think about this, it is contradictory to what we often hear about delivering feedback. It isn’t uncommon that we are thought how we should focus on positives because this is how we “build” people and not “destroy” them. Even more, delivering positive feedback is way more pleasant and for most people easier as well. It is tempting to avoid the critical part.

When we are on feedback loops I have one obvious association. Agile in its core is about feedback loops, and short ones. We have iterations so we deliver working software fast and receive feedback from clients. Or even better, we have steady flow so we don’t wait till the end of sprint to get this knowledge about the very next feature we complete. We build (and possibly deploy too) continuously so we know whether what we’ve build is even working. And of course we have unit tests that tell us how our code works against predefined criteria.

It is all about feedback loops, right?

Of course we expect to learn that whatever we’ve built is the thing clients wanted, our code hasn’t broken the build and all the tests are green. However, on occasion, something will be less than perfect. A feature will work not exactly the way a client expected, a build will explode, a bunch of tests will go red or pronunciation of a word will be creepy.

Are we offended by this feedback?

Didn’t think so. What more, it helps us improve. It is timely, specific and… critical. So why, oh why are we that reluctant to share critical feedback?

It would be way more harmful strategy to wait long before closing a feedback loop, no matter what the feedback is. Would it really tell you something if I pointed you this two-line change in code you did 4 months ago, that broke a couple of unit tests? Meaningless, isn’t it? By the way: this is why I don’t fancy performance reviews, even though I see the point of doing them in specific environments.

Whenever you think of sharing feedback with people think about feedback you get from your build process or tests – it doesn’t matter that much whether it is positive or critical; what makes the difference is the fact it is quick and factual.

You can hardly go wrong with timely and factual feedback, no matter whether it is supportive or not.

in: communication, personal development, team management

10 comments… add one

  • Marcin Floryan July 2, 2012, 12:41 pm


    Thank you for another interesting and inspiring though.

    I can certainly relate to your example of being corrected with your English. This has happened many times to me and in every single case I really appreciated when people pointed out if I make a mistake because indeed such timely and specific feedback is helpful. This is how I can improve.

    However, I wouldn’t extrapolate this particular point onto the generalisation that negative, critical feedback is as good as constructive feedback or that there is no difference between the two.

    Even your specific example about pronunciation “you’re doing it wrong” was, I bet, followed by a suggestion of what the correct pronunciation should be. I can very well imagine that in such case the other peson could easily have avoided the criticism by simply pointing out: “Paweł, I have heard you say this word in this way a few times, actually, the correct pronunciation is this …”. The informational effect of such feedback is exactly the same however, you are more likely to react positively to it and, what is more important, you will be more likely to remember the correct version.

    There are also further implications of negative personal feedback – it may work the one time but it creates a certain unconscious awkwardness which can lead to diminished opportunities for future feedback from that person. Much as we like to be, we are not rational. Perhaps the next time you are with that person you will avoid using certain harder words to avoid the pain of critique. You may very well not know it at all, yet your brain will.

    So while I am an advocate of honest, open direct and immediate feedback the way we provide the feedback to others does matter and the little effort we put into it’s presentation can make a significant difference long term.

    As a side not, there is also a huge difference between receiving negative feedback from a process (you test is failing, your build is broken) and receiving similar negative feedback from another person. I think we miss something if we fail to appreciate that difference.

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 2, 2012, 12:59 pm

    @Marcin – It wasn’t my intention to deny any difference between positive and critical feedback. It was my point to discuss our avoidance of delivering the latter.

    Anyway, talking about the story it was more like “Pawel, when you say ‘success’ it sounds a bit too much like ‘sucks.'” :) Just enough to make my day. Of course we can argue about that but this feedback is factual and this is where the value comes from. It doesn’t mean I’m a miserable person or no one can understand my English. It is just one word that is wrong.

    There may be more in it, when I think about your comment. Actually there may be something about how big chunk of feedback we receive (however one could even measure feedback size). The small bit is easy to chew through, even if it is critical.

    I also agree with two more things you mention. The form matters; it is wise to invest effort in how one delivers feedback, not only its content. And there is a difference between getting feedback from a process and from a person; it is hard to discuss with a failed build after all.

    Actually, I personally value more the latter, no matter how harsh it might be.

    I would like to make one clear distinction though. For me critical and negative feedback are two different things. I use “critical” with a meaning of not positive but constructive at the same time, like in the example you’ve shared. I use “negative” to name, well, just that – negative message, without any additional criteria.

    I know making such distinction doesn’t sound like me, but I believe it is important as an explanation to the post.

  • YvesHanoulle July 3, 2012, 1:11 am

    Hoi Pawel,

    In my article about perfection ghost, I also talk about receiving feedback about my French

    In my case, I encouraged people to give me any kind of feedback on my langauge.
    Did you do the same?

    Because that makes a huge difference for me.

    You say you value the feedback from the person more then that from a buildserver.
    I wonder if it’s the same for a broken build or a failed test.

    I ask this because a broken test, my tell you, I expected this. A broken build could be anything.

    And then we are back at: tell me “what you prefer” over “You are wrong”

    I actually think that positive feedback is similar, there we stress that we like when you do something good. Only we need ways to help people to get there.
    For that I created the “improvement game” (based on the perfection game) focusses on giving feedback by telling what we want:

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 3, 2012, 4:57 am

    @Yves – I find your story interesting. Actually, what I would stress is that in your case as long as you set constraints for feedback you feel comfortable. It doesn’t exactly works the same way for me. Personally, I prefer any constructive feedback I can get, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me.

    Usually the more critical feedback the more it pushes me forward in terms of building my skills. Note: I do assume we discuss constructive feedback. “You are not creative” isn’t constructive. It isn’t even fact-based. I could hardly call it feedback at all.

    So no, I don’t directly ask everyone around to correct me. After all it would be hard to say a single sentence without being interrupted :) However any time someone does that I show my appreciation.

  • YvesHanoulle July 3, 2012, 5:02 am

    No I don’t need the constraints. I actually I would encourage everyone to do this.
    It’ just that if you ask people to do give feedback, there is more chance that you will get that kind of feedback.

    I’m sure your English is better then my French, and yes sometimes I get interrupted a lot. Which is fine. That way people show they care about quality…

  • Zsolt July 3, 2012, 11:57 pm

    @Pawel, Nice post! I think that the source of the feedback also matters. I observed when the feedback came from a person, who one respected or recognized, then he accepted the positive and negative feedback as the same: constructive and motivating. On the other hand when a less respected person have a feedback it wasn’t that welcomed.

    I remember giving a feedback on a teams way of working, but nothing really happened, they kind of ignored me. Then I made them watch a video interview with Mary Poppendieck about the very same topic – practically I told them the same what Mary said – and they realized that she is right and they changed. This was the first time when they saw her, and yet they followed her advice not mine. They told me later that they trusted her than me based on the knowledge and experience we had ;-)

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 4, 2012, 12:14 am

    @Zsolt – Nobody is believed to be a prophet in his own town. I’ve seen that many times that the very same thing said by an outsider, either with a widely-known name or not, had bigger impact than said by an insider. This is basically why introducing change from within is often such a struggle.

    You’re right that respect changes the way how people receive feedback. That is why I often ask people whether they want to hear it before I share it. So far I never heard a negative answer, yet I doubt everyone was happy with what they heard.

    But then, it’s a common situation again – people, if asked, will tell you they want as much feedback as possible. However, when this feedback is critical (and constructive of course) they sometimes deny to accept it.

    And one more thing – despite the fact people want to receive much feedback most of the time they aren’t willing to share even a small portion of that with others. Interesting, isn’t it?

  • Zsolt July 4, 2012, 9:23 am

    Yes it is. And sometimes I feel that they are not ready to take the feedback ;-)

  • Clyde Parsley July 16, 2012, 1:07 pm

    I know I really appreciate feedback from people whether it’s positive or critical. At the same time though, I just hate giving people critical feedback. I think we all just need to be more open and honest with each other.

  • Eric Fer July 24, 2012, 7:34 pm

    Hi @Pawel. Congratulations for your post. A great insight and so true.
    Thank you a lot to share your thoughts

    As @Marcin very well mentioned, the catch of any feedback is ‘how’ to give it. I think it’s something that people need to improve so feedbacks can be more effective.
    It’s undeniable that each person has his/her own background, believes, culture etc so we need to be sensitive about how we approach someone when giving feedback.

    C’est la vie :)

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