Friday, September 6, 2019

More Practice for the Feedback Muscle

Where I work, we moved this year to quarterly personnel reviews.

With two rounds behind me as engineering manager of a team of ten (max 15 on some rounds), I sometimes feel like I barely finish one before another one is already starting.

The way one round works is very similar to what we used to do "process supported" once a year. Automation generates a set of questions about your achievements, your learning and your goals for future. They are sent to the employee who fills them in. Manager can generate more forms all around the organization inviting anonymous feedback to collect info. And then the employee and the manager discuss that stuff together, planning forward for the next interval.

With 10+ people and 4 times a year, that is a lot of forms. And with all the colleagues I work with, that is even more forms on feedback their managers are inviting us to provide.

At first, I was thinking of the forms as a way of documenting achievements for posterity. After all, I facilitate a very productive team that not only does stuff, but actually provides value for end users. Everyone contributes in their own way, on ways I look at as unique and supportive to others. I'm a manager trying to escape management (clock is ticking, max 9 months to go...), so it only feels fair that the record I leave for future would help the future manager understand my reports successes.

I only needed one annual and one quarterly review to realize that the process needs to be played with. And when I say play, I mean more than "talk every day and make notes quarterly". It needs some serious play.

With my team, I announced we are doing it this time in pairs. This would work so that everyone again fills their own form and it gets sent to me. Then I assign everyone a pair, who is peer in the team. The pair will have the responsibility to fill in the bits of the manager, providing their colleague feedback. I will act as secretary and quality control person helping fill in gaps in relevant feedback.

Our quarterly review was feedback and feedback on feedback.

I learned that:

  • Everyone being the others manager, even if just as role-play was great
  • Everyone has relevant feedback and ideas to grow for their peers
  • In a pair + manager, both positive and negative feedback was discussed constructively
  • People generated ideas of what to try to do differently
  • I could add my pieces and views to the discussion that was much richer this way
Whenever some manager asks me feedback on their reports anonymously through the automation system, I always send an email to the person giving my feedback without anonymity. I believe anonymity only brings out the worst in people. It weakens the gift of feedback. It removes the possibility of a dialog and co-generation of ideas to improve things. It allows for resentment to build, and creates an atmosphere where you need to be guessing which one of your colleagues is unhappy with you in case on negative feedback. 

When I do this, I hear that it is culturally not possible elsewhere to do what I do - in the same organization. 

I hear people don't have the soft skills of giving feedback.

I hear people only talk about positive and don't speak of the negative. 

I hear people have no baseline of what really good looks like. 

The way I look at it, these are true for lack of practice. You need to build the feedback muscle. And just like with real muscles, those grow with repetition, practice and corrective feedback.

Giving feedback - radical candor - is relevant. If you hide your problems because they are hard to talk about, how do you expect to get good? If you don't share what delights you, how do you expect to get more of it? 

Monday, September 2, 2019

Breaking the Assumption of Review to Accept

It was one of the European Testing Conference calls, and I forgot to ask at the end of the call if they'd trust me to summarize the call in a tweet. I remembered I forgot only an hour later, and they were no longer around. I send a message asking for the trust, and the response taught me something of relevance I had had hard time communication before. The response asked me to run the message through them.

I felt deflated. I no longer wanted to write that tweet. I felt they did not trust me. I felt they wanted control over my tweets.

I sat on the response for some hours, thinking I would let it pass without tweeting, without saying anything. But eventually I responded and expressed how I felt.

"I do really bad with reviews (for acceptance), they suffocate my ability to do things. I do "you can ask me to delete" style of reviews." - I told them. 

"It's a tweet. Go ahead" and "I'm sure you'd look out for me" was just the response I needed.

They did not ask me to delete my tweet. I would have if they asked me to. The risk of me doing something irreversible was very low. There was no particular reason why the review needed to happen before the material was published as it could happen after. I would carry the risk of apologizing in public, explaining in public and reaching out to people with the odd chance that this time I failed at doing something I did routinely.

The tweet was something that made a pattern of how I prefer working very visible.

I build skills and competencies in me & people around me to do things without acceptance.
I expect things are discussed in preparation, not reviewed as final step.
I trust the doer to pull help when help is needed.

I was writing release notes for millions of users, all by myself. As we added another product, the product people wanted a review before publishing. I asked them to publish their own release notes.What we were already publishing routinely had all the info they needed. They just needed to add the review and republish. Waiting for that step did not make sense to me.

I welcome feedback on mistakes, to grow the skill. I kick out the testing-fashioned acceptance review, unless I see it is founded on actual risk.

I don't let people do this to me, and I don't do this to people. I've given up on being the guardian of quality and become the facilitator of quality. The work happens before and while, not after. And there's always the next cycle to act on feedback on mistakes.