Information Technology Dark Side

Struggles of a Self-Taught Coder

Information Technology Dark Side header image 2

Instant Feedback in the Workplace

February 20th, 2006 · 1 Comment

Instant feedback is exactly what it sounds. It’s identifying bad (and good) behavior the moment it happens and giving the perpetrator a chance to evaluate his or her approach on the spot and take corrective action. I think all organizations should have a formalized practice for giving instant feedback, both good and bad. In order for instant feedback to work, however, it has to be guided by some simple principles. If positive and negative feedback are distributed too casually they will become meaningless. Likewise, feedback given too sparingly will create the impression of inconsistency. Also, instant feedback has to be democratic and no respecter of titles. Otherwise it will be stilted and unreliable.

Let me illustrate this with a parable.

Question Man – A Mostly True Story

The main character in this story is Question Man, named so because of his propensity to ask frustrating, irrelevant questions in class. We used to keep metrics on the number of questions per class he would ask. Not once did he ever go an entire lecture without raising his hand and asking a question. This alone was enough to earn him a less than warm spot in our hearts, but question man managed to make himself even more memorable by asking really obvious questions. Sometimes he would even debate with the professor, challenging his answers and driving the professor and the rest of the class crazy. This would have been fine in a philosophy class, perhaps even fun, but in ENGINEERING? It was ridiculous.

Question Man was particularly irritating to me because he seemed to have no sense of fairness to the rest of the class. He didn’t care that his constant questions and pointless debates were detracting from the educational experience of the rest of us. He was boorish and rude and I, along with the rest of the class, had had enough. It was time to take some action.

So one day before class I positioned myself near the main entry and distributed two water balloons each to everybody in the class, even Question Man. I got some quizzical looks, but they took them just the same. I put two balloons on the lectern and took my seat. Professor Adams picked up one of them, looked it over, and set it back down on the lectern but didn’t say a word.

Five minutes into the lecture, it happened. Question Man’s arm shot up in the air. Professor Adams tried to ignore it, but QM persisted. Finally Professor Adam’s relented his lecturing and let QM speak, but the rest of us weren’t having any of that. The first balloon hit QM right in the back of the head and he wheeled around in time to take the next 199 balloons right in the face. Even Professor Adams launched his balloons at QM, though he missed and hit an empty seat.

Question Man stood there for a full minute, soaked from head to foot with multi-colored scraps of rubber attached to his face and clothes. And then a miracle happened. He turned back to the front of the class, slumped to his seat, and prepared to take notes. The rest of us burst into applause. There were no more questions that day.

Instant Feedback

Okay, so this story is only partly true. There really was a question man, and there really was a day when a fed up class let him know that it was time to shut up. And, oddly enough, it did end in a round of applause. There just weren’t any water balloons involved. Instead, Professor Adams merely asked QM to shut his yapper in a calm but witty way.

The idea of using water balloons to let QM know that he had tried our patience to its breaking point is one that was a simple fantasy in college, but over the years has evolved into an interesting concept for addressing bad behavior in the workplace. What if everyone at work carried two waterballoons with them everywhere they went? What if we used them as a way to give instant feedback in meetings about the way people were behaving?

If a coworker was being a jerk by constantly interrupting others, the group could slam him with water balloons. If, however, one of the participants got all wound up about nothing and threw an unwarranted balloon, the rest of the group could let him know by retaliating with theirs. It would be totally awesome! We could approve or reject behavior without debate, without analysis, simply by carrying two waterballoons to work every day.

Okay, before you give up on this article let me admit that carrying waterballoons at work is totally ridiculous. Just think of all the wrecked laptops! That said, I think there is a fundamental premise about this idea that is worth considering: instant feedback.

An Economy of Feedback

I think the best instant feedback systems will be based on the law of supply and demand. It’s simplest this way – everyone understands the implications of limited supply without even having them explained. Treat feedback like money, and limit the amount that can be put into circulation. Once money is spent (or waterballoons are thrown), they can’t be re-spent (or re-thrown). This drives the spender/thrower to optimize the use of the money or balloon.

So here’s what I propose: create an economy of feedback in your workplace. Put a limited supply of “feedback” devices into circulation and reallocate them each day. Feedback devices could be foam balls, playing cards, stickers, or whatever. When someone misbehaves, throw your feedback device at them. That person has to keep it, and cannot use it again. Instead, once the meeting is over, he has to return the device to the “feedback bank”, a box on your desk.

Each day distribute two feedback devices to everyone on your team. They aren’t allowed to give the devices to eachother except as a sign of feedback, and nobody needs to take score. Don’t record who gave feedback to who – this doesn’t really matter. Instead, talk about how people should respond to the feedback. Cultivate open graciousness in the group and see what happens. Everyone on your team will develop an improved sense of the effect they are having on others. Skin will thicken and hostility will give way to discussion, fairness, and resolution.

I’m going to try using playing cards, two cards for each team member every day. Hearts will be positive feedback, spades will be negative.

Please share your “instant feedback” experience here. Anyone who actually finds a way to use waterballoons is a Technology Dark Side superstar.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!
Stumble it!

Tags: Job Advice

1 response so far ↓

Leave a Comment