Feedback vs. feedforward – who is going to win?


Marcelina Szostak-Kustra

Spis treści

It is almost impossible to imagine a mature development team operating without any access to external feedback. Conditions are constantly changing. We go Agile and focus on providing high quality solutions. On top of all this comes the need to be up to speed with technology. It all means that IT teams members need ongoing feedback about the progress of their activities.

Do you know what is feedback? 

There are multiple ways to provide feedback. Feedback, by definition, is focused on past behaviors, which are either positive (desired) or negative (not desired). Many of these behaviors are already deeply rooted in our work. Our team members are familiar with various methods to provide valuable feedback (e.g. SBISBI & FUKO – Polish only) on a daily basis. 

Feedforward – a new game changer?

There are different ways to provide feedback. In 2007, Marshall Goldsmith, an American business coach, described a tool that could be just as effective, or even more effective than feedback. Feedforward, unlike feedback, focuses on the future and directly suggests the expected behavior of the individual in the longer time horizon. It also includes potential options for solving a problem.

Feedback and feedforward examples

Let’s check how feedback and feedforward compare in practice. Imagine that your colleague did a lot of code refactoring without discussing it with the team beforehand: 

  1. Adam, I’ve noticed that you did a lot of refactoring which you hadn’t consulted with us. As a result, the whole team has to improve other features because everything is down. I’m afraid we will have to stay after hours to fix this. Could you please consult such things with us next time?
  2. Adam, please remember to consult with us your willingness to do a bigger refactoring next time. 

In the first statement we put the emphasis on what already took place. In the second one, we focus on the change that we expect to happen. In this particular case, feedback may trigger some kind of negative emotions and come across as unpleasant to its recipient. Feedforward, on the other hand, seems to be more practical, task-oriented, focused on specific expectations and less (if at all) appealing to feelings. However, feedback leaves more space for discussions and finding a solution by a person who is to learn a lesson from receiving it. 

Let’s imagine that your teammate prepared a great presentation during our internal IT Depends meetup. We can compliment her like this: 

  1. Agatha, you did a really great talk! It was both specific and engaging. The solution you talked about could be very useful in my current project. I’m sure I will try to use it right away to improve my work. Thanks a lot! 
  2. Agatha, it would be wonderful if all presentations on our meetup were as specific and engaging as yours. I hope you will do some more talks in the future, you are very good at it! 

In the first example, we emphasize the action and the effect achieved by Agatha. The latter makes the message slightly vague. Certainly, Agatha can make something good out of both statements, but intuitively, it seems that positive reinforcement by feedback (i.e. the first example) could be more effective here. On the other hand, because some people may find it hard to take compliments, feedforward could be more fitting – a valuable signpost telling them they are going in the right direction. 

Which tool is going to win the final fight? 

Feedback offers a broader context of the situation and specific type of behavior. It appeals to feelings, leaves space for discussion and encourages working out a solution together. Sometimes, however, feedback may cause negative emotions and can be hard to handle by sensitive people. 

Feedforward is the pure essence reinforcing future behavior and is particularly effective when applied to highly motivated and high-achieving people. But at times, it doesn’t paint the whole picture. To some people, it could sound like a command – something that’s not to be questioned – and feels very indirect.

The short answer is: it depends! What’s important is to always try to provide information about other people’s behavior in a way that: 

  1. suits the situation best,
  2. maximizes the reinforcement of positive actions in the future,
  3. enables a change of behavior for the better.

The best thing you could do is try! 

Useful links: [EN] [EN] [PL] [PL] [PL]


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