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How to Give Your Team Feedback

Providing feedback is never easy. Discover five methods to create a culture of team feedback.

By Gustavo Razzetti

December 6, 2019

5 methods for giving collective feedback

Giving feedback is a gift that helps people learn and grow. When practiced as a team, it fosters collaboration–not just learning.

Collective feedback encourages people to focus on the outcomes as a team. They celebrate success and address failure as one rather than focusing on who to reward or blame.

Here are five methods to help your team approach giving and receiving feedback as one.

1. Hold an Agile Retrospective

Regular agile retrospectives are a fast and effective way for teams to improve their performance.

An agile retrospective is a short meeting to reflect on a project. It could happen once the project is completed or after a specific stage. The main goal is to analyze the outcomes, the process, and identify areas for improvement.

It’s also called a sprint or scrum retrospective.

Having regular retrospectives develops a culture of feedback and saves a lot of time and money. It’s easier (and cheaper) to make small adjustments instead of correcting big mistakes when it’s too late.

What are the benefits of agile retrospectives?

– Encourage the practice of reflecting and practicing feedback

– Create a space to reflect, review, analyze, and course-correct

– Allow the team to clear the air by addressing tensions and issues that could be kept silent

– Provide an opportunity to acknowledge progress and celebrate success

– Address small issues before they become more complicated

– Invite people to make their own decision and solve problems as a team

Who should do an agile retrospective?

This tool is used by most companies that practice agile methods (i.e., scrum), especially those in software development.

However, you don’t need to practice agile to benefit from this method — any team should hold a retrospective.

How to Facilitate an Agile Retrospective

Most agile retrospectives focus on four areas:

What went well?

What could have gone better?

What do we want to try next?

What puzzles us?

Ask participants to fill cards or post-its with their feedback addressing their answers to the questions above.

You can use Assana, a tool that provides sprint retrospectives templates and allows capturing and managing the discussion. TeamRetro is another online tool for managing team retrospectives and team health checks.

Cluster the responses into five groups:

– What’s working well

– What can work better

– The things we haven’t tried

– The things we are not doing by choice

– Surprises or tensions that don’t fit in any of the previous categories

Invite people to vote. Give each team member three dots:

– Yellow: quick wins

– Green: things that will delight the customer/ team

– Red: things that will create a significant, long-term impact

Tips for facilitators

Create a safe space for people to be honest, especially when getting started.

Ask people to be specific when providing feedback and to challenge groupthink.

Use technology to involve remote team members or people that can’t join the meeting in person.

Start the next retrospective by reminding people of what was agreed in the last one.

Most retrospectives tend to be too project-focused. Encourage people to address team issues such as collaboration, communication, etc.

Coach the team to identify what’s under their control, and what’s not. Many times, teams get frustrated by external issues that affect their performance but are entirely out of their reach.

2. After-Action Reviews

Most project reviews are “post-mortem” — after the fact and too late to change the outcome.

The After Action Review (AAR) process was developed by the military to quickly learn from soldiers’ experiences in the field. Most organizations can benefit from practicing this ongoing feedback method.

The U.S. Army defines AAR as a structured, iterative process executed by trained, educated, and practiced team members that provides the commanders an independent capability to continuously challenge plans.

The key goal of AARs is to learn and apply the knowledge immediately. The ‘field unit’ shares what happened, and the ‘commanders’ can transfer that experience to other teams right away.

Benefits of an AAR Team Feedback

Like a retrospective, an AAR allows assessing what happened. However, and most importantly, it also creates an opportunity to identify what caused a deviation from the expected outcome.

An AAR can be applied to many situations, not just a project evaluation. For example, you can conduct one to assess the hiring of a new executive, debrief a training session, or review a town hall meeting.

You can apply the AAR process after the completion of a project, or after each stage. AARs are also useful to reflect after a crisis and learn how to deal with unexpected events.

Like most team feedback methods, an AAR avoids the blame game by focusing the conversation on collective behaviors. It encourages people to learn and grow as a team.

How to Facilitate an After-Action Review

Start with the results. Then, understand what caused the gap (the ‘why’). Finally, focus on defining behaviors moving forward.

Use the following questions to facilitate the conversation:

1. What were our intended results?

2. What were our actual results?

3. What caused our results?

4. What will we do the same next time?

5. What will we do differently?

Remember, an AAR is a structured meeting that:

  • Focuses on what happened and why
  • Reflects on why the results were different than expected
  • Promotes a learning mindset; people adjust their behaviors for the next time
  • Strengthens collaboration via feedback and candid conversations

3. Red Team and Blue Team

What we don’t know we don’t know can get us in trouble. That’s why blindspots are called like that — we can’t see potential threats. When we finally see them, it’s usually too late.

Inviting someone to attack your team can help people improve their game. That’s the purpose of a Red Team: it will make your weaknesses visible.

The Red Team (or Red Team, Blue Team) takes its name from military practices. An example is when companies hire friendly hackers to attack their systems so they can detect vulnerabilities before others.

The Red Team practice has been widely adopted in technology companies. It’s a perfect way to test security issues. However, you can apply it to challenge a strategy, idea, business model, or team performance.

The Benefits of Having A Red Team

Corporate arrogance or cognitive bias can blind how teams make decisions. The Red Team practice is ideal for keeping everyone aware and alert.

Depending on the complexity of the problem, you can either create a Red Team with people from your own company or hire external resources.

Red Teams keep your teams in their toes. They increase awareness that there are many factors we usually miss. Inviting a Red Team is an effective way to keep your team alert.

By challenging your way of thinking, you can anticipate threats that your competitors can use against you. It also helps develop a learning mindset and promotes lateral thinking.

How to Facilitate a Red Team Session

The following guidelines are for regular problems. For testing more complex issues such as software security, consult with an expert.

Form the Red Team with diverse members. You want to create a team that combines expertise, outsiders, and many skills.

Have the Blue Team present their solution (an idea they want to implement, a new product or business model they are considering launching, etc.).

Allow the Red Team to ask questions to challenge the solution. Then, give them time to reflect and brainstorm on what the Blue Team is missing as well as uncovering flaws and potential ‘attacks.’

4. Start, Stop, Continue Doing

The start, stop, continue format is a widespread yet beneficial feedback exercise. Although it’s usually used for individual feedback, it’s great for teams too.

This method starts by identifying actions that team members think they should start doing, ones they should stop doing, and, finally, the things that are okay to continue practicing.

Benefits of the Start, Stop, Continue Doing Team Feedback

  • Clarifies and structures feedback into three simple categories: ‘start,’ ‘stop,’ and ‘continue.’
  • Allows the entire team to review how they are doing both at an individual and collective perspective.
  • Identifies areas of improvement and experimentation.
  • Reinforces good habits and behaviors that the teams must continue to do.
  • Encourages action rather than rehashing issues or finger-pointing.
  • Promotes continuous learning and improvement.

How to Facilitate ‘Start, Stop, Continue Doing’

This type of retrospective is one of the most straightforward review tools. It doesn’t require much expertise or materials.

You can use post-its or online collaboration tools such as Google docs or you can use the Start, Stop, Continue Canvas. The whole exercise shouldn’t take more than 20–30 minutes, depending on the size of the team.

First, ask people to capture their own impressions. Then, collect everyone’s input on a whiteboard and cluster the responses–or you can do it on the online tool.

Use the following guide to help the team understand each category:

Start — things the team will begin doing in the next cycle. They can either be improvements or experimental.

Stop — things that no longer serve the team, or bad behaviors or practices that the team needs to let go of.

Continue — behaviors, mindsets, or activities that work and should stay as part of the team’s best practices.

You can also do two rounds: one where people assess their own behaviors, and a second where they focus on the collective ones.

Start each session reminding people what was agreed in the previous one.

5. Have a Creative Braintrust

Candor is absolutely critical during the creative process. The more everyone shares their ideas, opinions, and criticism, the better.

At Pixar, Ed Catmull fostered creativity through candor. By creating a psychologically safe culture, directors and creative teams felt encouraged to provide and receive direct, constructive criticism from each other.

What Is A Braintrust?

Brainstrust is a tool that Pixar uses to achieve a higher level of candor.

According to Catmull, the purpose of a Braintrust is to, “push towards excellence, and root out mediocrity.” This practice is Pixar’s secret sauce and has helped turn mediocre movie ideas into huge box office successes.

As Catmull said, “Early on, all of our movies suck. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them… go, as I say, ‘from suck to non-suck.’”

The Braintrust is a group of trusted colleagues that get together periodically. Their role is to review the progress of a film–most specifically, the characters, storyline, and design.

The process requires intellectual humility to recognize that, early on, most creative ideas suck.

The members of a Braintrust don’t have any hidden agenda. They are not there to steal the movie from the project owners. That’s one essential rule of this method; Braintrusts are formed of a group of peers that are working on another film. They won’t get any credit for helping out.

Participants focus on identifying problems. They care about raising the bar of the end product. However, it’s the team in charge of the film that will define how to solve those issues.

A creative Braintrust provides clarity through the eyes of a trusted outsider. Usually, creative leaders get so immersed that they lose perspective. A group of colleagues can always amplify our points of view.

Andrew Stanton, the Pixar director who created “Finding Nemo,” compares a Braintrust with a panel of doctors,

“If Pixar is a hospital and the movies are the patients, then the Braintrust is made up of trusted doctors.”

How to Facilitate a Braintrust

Provide a safe environment where people are willing to let their colleagues criticize their ideas. It requires time and several iterations. Expect people to take things personally, especially in the first attempts.

Build a Braintrust that includes people that both have the expertise and trust to be respected by the team managing the project.

Remind the Braintrust to provide feedback on the product, not the people. Have them focus on identifying problems and areas of opportunity, not to prescribe solutions.

You can have one team acting as Braintrust to another, and then vice versa. This will help lower defenses by switching roles. However, don’t do the role reversal in the same session. Allow some time in between for people to decant the feedback.

Make sure people are empathetic, not critical. Have an experienced facilitator run the session to neutralize attacks or personal reactions. Also, they should keep people on track.

Remind the team that the Braintrust has no authority. In other words, the director et al. don’t have to follow their ideas or suggestions.

To be effective, Braintrusts require trust and candor. The panel of “trusted creatives” must provide very clear, direct, and constructive feedback. Their role is not to be nice to their colleagues, but honest.

Participants should provide clear notes at the end of the meeting. Good notes should be timely, not too late to fix the problem.

According to Catmull, good Braintrusts’ notes are specific and capture:

What is wrong?

What is missing?

What isn’t clear?

What makes no sense?

Good notes don’t include a proposed fix, nor do they prescribe an answer. They challenge and inspire the project owner to find the solution.

I hope you find the above methods useful and will experiment with them. Keep me posted and share your insights.

One last reminder: team feedback and criticism should always come from a good place. Building a culture of feedback requires honesty, empathy, humility, and practice.

Ed Catmull wrote, “Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves.”

To learn more about how to give your team feedback, read the 5 shifts required to build a culture of feedback.

What do you think?



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