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From feedback to feedforward

Now some smart companies are moving to a 'feedforward' assessment and employee coaching system

Ankita Rai & Sonali Chowdhury 

Traditional systems have long been criticised for being ineffective in terms of motivating employees and improving performance. Now some smart companies are moving to a 'feedforward' assessment and coaching system. assumes that by giving people ideas on how they can be more successful (as opposed to visualising a failed past), we can increase their chances of achieving success in the future. So is the way forward and can it really ever replace the traditional feedback process?

"demands a shift in mindset"

A research by David Rock, who coined the term 'neuroleadership', shows that when we receive a 'rating' or 'appraisal' (essentially, feedback) our brain shifts into fear or flight mode. This shift, which takes place whenever we are threatened, immediately takes us out of the mode to learn or create, making us defensive. So the actual act of executing a itself reduces performance. Clearly the need is to re-engineer the entire performance process and make it simple and developmental.

Feedforward is the mechanism to facilitate this. When organisations embrace this forward-looking, future-focused approach, employees have something to look forward to, plan ahead for, and be excited about. There is then a sense of purpose - the establishment of meaningfulness in everyday work. Of course, we are not advocating an ethereal, abstract, dreamy stuff - this sense of purpose has to be real, something that one can measure against, something that one is accountable to. The result is motivation and an accomplishment-driven culture.

A great mechanism incorporating the powerful notions of feedforward is OKRs (objectives and key results). It is a forward looking tool where each defines his/her objectives in light of the company goals. OKRs are always prospective, not retrospective. They are set for initiatives and measures for future, and not to document something done and accomplished earlier.

Like any other training/coaching model, this approach would also require an easing-in process. Once the managers understand the concept and appreciate the importance of feedforward, it should be fairly easy to embrace this approach. In many ways, it is more natural and less adversarial. Still there are some deeply entrenched habits and notions to be wary of. To many managers, the idea of their employees determining and owning their directions can be difficult to digest. The requirement that the individuals would need to be explicitly explained, and convinced about what to do, doesn't fit well with the command and control mindset. People may generally be reluctant in suggesting the way forward to others. Similarly, at times, there could be gaps in understanding, leading to resistance to guidance from others.

Feedforward demands a shift in the mindset. It is easy to tweak extant practices and label them as feedforward approaches but then such window-dressing would only be detrimental to organisation's performance. Organisations have to realise that feedforward mechanisms put new demands on everyone. Organisations have to be more transparent, managers more receptive (and vigilant), and all employees much more accountable.

Executive director, effectiveness (HR), Advaiya Solutions

"A clarity in organisational goals lead to faster results"

We live in VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) times. Businesses are dynamic, fast-changing and evolving at a faster pace than before. The talent needs are equally dynamic and businesses are looking for talent that can adapt, evolve, and deliver in this environment. Given this, employers are increasingly going beyond conventional thinking to enable employees grow and perform.

Embracing feedforward is one such step. Many progressive organisations in India, especially those working in the knowledge-intensive environment like consulting and product development, have been increasingly adopting it. One of the advantages that organisations foresee by implementing it is achieving organisational objectives with higher levels of predictability.

So how does feedforwarding help and how does one use it? Feedforwarding requires managers to look into the future, set goals and devise a plan to achieve them. A certain level of maturity is, thus, required to implement it for effective results and smooth execution. As a first step, it is most important to educate the manager (and above)-level of employees or teams to adopt it as a way of working. Second, objectives are best achieved within the defined time-frame if managers are provided with a stipulated boundary to operate without restrictions on ownership and accountability. Also, clarity of organisational goals at unit levels would lead to faster results.

Like many other processes within the organisation, feedforward would deliver results only if managers are trained to make it effective. The process needs to be deep-rooted in the organisational DNA. Thereafter, the organisation needs to create a system for the managers to follow in order to leverage the benefits of feedforward. It is necessary to empower people for each role and the activities, goals, and career path should be defined. And these should be made known to both the role holder and the supervisor. The next crucial aspect is identification of potential elements that might derail the process while simultaneously creating a framework to overcome them. For instance, there could be stress situations where people might not be able to perform well and these should be listed, while also allocating mentors, who could help employees tackle such situations.

Another aspect that requires proper care while training managers is 'ring fencing'. Ring fencing the roles or giving employees the ownership at the same time allocating certain risk areas that should be handled by the next layer is useful in reducing business risks. This makes the system foolproof.

Co-Founder & CEO, PeopleStrong HR Services

"Include feedforward within the feedback"

The art of replacing negative feedback with positive developmental suggestions, known as 'feedforward', is gaining momentum, more so in Indian organisations. When implemented in the right manner, it proves to be a powerful, strategic change tool, aimed at fostering positive changes in organisational culture. Rather than focusing on what happened in the past, which is irreversible, this tool provides a clear pathway on how to solve or improve a given situation without giving any criticism. This further eliminates the possibility of managers being seen as judgmental.

Feedforward also helps employees to reinforce a positive and partnering relationship with their supervisors and sub-ordinates. Such a mechanism has several benefits:

* It does not require the manager to be aware of the employee's past performance. As long as the employee is open for developmental suggestions, the scope for improvement is vast.

* Reinforcement of failure to reinforcement of development is what separates feedback from feedforward

* Feedforward tends to be faster than feedback as the focus is only on solutions to improve in the future.

* Employees tend to concentrate and imbibe feedforward more better than feedback.

It is a well-known fact that too much negative feedback de-motivates the employee, while too much of positive advice develops complacency. Also, if the feedforward is not given in the right manner with the right motive, the whole exercise will not serve its purpose. The process could be made effective if managers keep in mind the culture of the organisation and the person's background, so that he/she knows what kind of statements are acceptable and what are not.

Feedforward definitely blends well with the concept of coaching as it is improvement oriented. However, to offer improvement advice, a coach needs to understand the areas of development. In turn, the employee needs to be aware of past performance and where he/she needs to develop. While it takes some time for the managers to get acquainted to the process of giving positive reinforcement advice instead of focusing on the past, when done regularly, it defines the culture of the organisation.

Even as there is a lot of buzz around feedforward, there is no one sure-shot method to decide whether it would be feedback or feedforward that suits a team. One is not a substitute of another. Not giving feedback or abolishing performance appraisals will not serve an organisation's purpose as people need to be made aware of their past performance and their strengths and weaknesses. Managers need to weigh the situation and a correct balance of feedback and feedforward or imbibing feedforward within the feedback session will make the objective more meaningful for the employee and organisation.

Knowledge & Research Consultant, SHRM India

First Published: Mon, March 09 2015. 00:12 IST