It’s that time of year again! In many organizations, January ushers in the time of year to provide formal feedback on the past year’s contribution.  Most leaders (and most of their people) anticipate this exercise with all of the joy of a trip to the dentist. (Yes, there are a few people, like Bill Murray in Little Shop of Horrors, who savor “long, slow root canals,” but let’s not waste too much time on that tiny minority.)

Part of the pain people experience in the traditional feedback process comes from the hassle of writing up and collecting input from a person’s peer group.  It’s time-consuming, written words are often misunderstood, and the whole exercise is timed poorly (after a holiday period and as a new year is just kicking off).Too often, people do it as an exercise and the poor folks in HR end up being the nags trying to get people to comply.  Comply! We all know that feedback is one of the most powerful levers for improving our performance, but we drag our feet because the process is painful.

Most organizations rightly focus on both quantitative feedback (what you achieved) and qualitative feedback (how you achieved it).  Assuming goals and metrics were identified early in the year, quantitative feedback is often easier. Qualitative feedback is where people most often burn time and generate frustration.

Over the past year, our team had the opportunity to trial a different way of providing this qualitative feedback for the leadership team at a progressive client.  It went like this:

  • Each person received peer feedback through a standard 360-degree feedback tool. (We used the widely-available Leadership Practices Inventory developed by Kouzes and Posner.)
  • A coach briefly worked with each person to identify themes and select up to five developmental areas they wanted to improve in.
  • We gathered the peer group together and gave each person 30 minutes (maximum) to get the group’s input.  In that 30 minutes:
    • The participant reviewed themes from the feedback.
    • The participant nominated his or her five potential development areas.
    • Group members suggested additions or changes to these developmental areas.
    • Using anonymous electronic voting keypads, the group members rank ordered the developmental areas.
    • The participant asked clarifying questions and decided – now with the real-time input of his or her team-mates – where to invest energy in development.

We saw significant benefits to this approach.  Participants had the chance to receive in-person feedback and to gain clarity on what people really meant.  The group got to provide their input quickly and without a lengthy writing assignment (precisely what most leaders like to do least).  And the leader of the group got his feedback cycle completed in one sitting.

Granted, this is only one way to cut the cake, but it was seen as an important breakthrough for this client – significantly better quality of feedback for significantly less effort than the traditional method.

What have you done in your organizations to make feedback meaningful instead of just an exercise?