The Project Feedback Loop: Positive, Negative, And Everything Inbetween.

In the fluid and often complex world of project management, feedback loops are essential mechanisms for continuous improvement and aligning project outcomes with stakeholder expectations. The feedback loop process is crucial for maintaining the flexibility and adaptability of projects as well as fostering satisfaction for all parties. Effective feedback—whether positive or negative—plays a pivotal role…

the project feedback loop positive negative neutral

In the fluid and often complex world of project management, feedback loops are essential mechanisms for continuous improvement and aligning project outcomes with stakeholder expectations. The feedback loop process is crucial for maintaining the flexibility and adaptability of projects as well as fostering satisfaction for all parties. Effective feedback—whether positive or negative—plays a pivotal role in guiding teams towards success. Understanding how to give and receive feedback constructively can significantly impact the trajectory of any project. Let’s dive into why and how to create an effective feedback loop, and how to give and receive constructive, honest feedback. 

What’s a Feedback Loop?

A feedback loop in project management refers to a process where outputs of a project are fed back into the program as inputs, often via a variety of channels and mediums from stakeholders, team members, or other sources. This feedback is used to make adjustments, improve processes, and ensure the project is on track to meet its goals.

Every participant with a vested interest in the project, and its outcome should constantly be  monitoring the project’s progress and output, and assessing it through a critical, and through their utmost impartial lens. If feedback has a regular cadence the team is able to easily tweak their practices while the delta of output trajectory is miniscule. Longer feedback cycles could result in a far greater delta, that will be disruptive and expensive. The required course corrections could be insurmountable and ultimately end in catastrophe. Feedback loops also play a role in ensuring continual stakeholder alignment and buy-in, not to mention opportunities for ingraining new positive team habits. 

Learning Starts With Real-Time Honest Feedback

There simply is no gain in sugar coating or delaying feedback until project completion. By that time, you and your team are likely ready for the next big project, and don’t have your thoughts entirely set on the current project. At that point, it’s no longer a feedback loop, and is now just retrospective feedback which nobody will act on… 

One critical element of effective feedback is the cyclic looping. Proper stakeholder alignment and higher team performance is sustained by requesting, delivering, recording, and acting on prompt feedback consistently throughout the project lifecycle, and doing so habitually. It’s the repetitive cadence that guarantees success. This is why leaving feedback till the end or doing it infrequently on an ad-hoc basis is project suicide!

Imagine your team working through months of project deliverables, only to find that your requirements got lost in communication, and your team has delivered something that is entirely different from your expectation. Too often we see products or services that have taken so long to develop that they are simply irrelevant in the market with very little competitiveness or return on investment. Feedback loops don’t just work as a way to improve your project’s deliverables, but as a way to spot issues early on before they get out of hand. This diligent practice leads to less rework, less wasted resources, less delays, and, best of all, better results. 

How Do I Create A Feedback Loop? 

An ideal feedback loop can easily be achieved through establishing a regular stakeholder meeting / workshop with a standard format, at a cadence to suit the size and complexity of the program. If you’re working in a small project team, say 5 to 10 people, you can do a regular feedback session that involves the whole team. Larger project structures, involving teams of teams may require a more formal touchpoint with all stakeholders. A good example of this is the Program Demo that provides valuable input into the succeeding ceremony called Program Increment (PI) Planning that forms the foundation of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and sets the entire Agile Release Train (ART) up for the next 10 weeks of work. All stakeholders need to be considered and included, so don’t forget representatives from:

  • Infrastructure
  • Security
  • DevOps
  • Sales
  • Industry Relations
  • Marketing
  • Regulatory Compliance
  • Architecture
  • End-Users

There are numerous types of defined feedback loops (e.g. Gemba walks, product demos, focus groups etc.) and their designs vary greatly, but the important element is transparent collaboration amongst all and this should, as much as possible, be multi-directional, similar to 360s used in individual performance feedback. If you are at a loss for ideas on agenda, format or tone, you could start with a little “mental bubblegum” from some of these models:

  • McKinsey Model – Specific, Fact-based, Less personal,Irrefutable, Actionable
  • SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound
  • COIN  – Context,Observation, Impact, Next steps

Is Your Feedback Effective?

Yes, there is such a thing as ineffective feedback. Simply giving your team the ability to provide feedback isn’t always enough to ensure feedback will have an actual impact on the end product. Ineffective feedback will hinder progress, create misunderstandings, and lead to poor project outcomes.

There are a few anti-patterns to guard against: 

Vague or Unclear Feedback

Reacting to unclear feedback is difficult because the recipient can have a hard time understanding the exact issue or action needed. Feedback should be specific and point directly to the problem at hand instead of a general notice of an issue.

How To Fix it: Be more specific and note exactly what the problem is. Instead of “your report needs improvement” you should say “the report needs a more detailed market analysis in section 3”. This way, the recipient knows what the problem is, and has the information needed to start fixing it. Encourage or even incentivize (as Valstroom teams do) questions. The most important question being “Why” as this gets you to the purpose or intended outcome of the use case.

Non-Constructive Criticism

Non-constructive feedback focuses solely on what’s wrong without offering solutions or constructive advice for improvement. Sometimes, non-constructive criticism will be given with ill-intent instead of being given in an effort to improve the project. This is inappropriate and not valuable in a professional setting. We often see a tendency to look for blame as opposed to acknowledging that it is a team effort. Foster a safe place to explore ideas and increase a renewed focus on the end goal.

How To Fix It: Ensure feedback is solely to improve the product / project. Maintain a constant feeling of camaraderie and inclusion. Use the word “we” as opposed to “you”  Empathy is key so adopt a persona of a true team member regardless of your title or role to understand the  environment the work is being executed in. When it comes to correcting team members, be helpful, not just critical. Instead of “you keep missing deadlines, I don’t think you care about this project” you should say “I noticed that we missed the deadline for that market report. What can we do to help get the next report done on time?” 

Delayed Timing

Feedback is provided too late, making it irrelevant or less useful. This is especially detrimental when feedback has been given on a completed phase, making the solution difficult, disruptive and, most importantly, EXPENSIVE. This is the very reason why we are proponents of a regular cadence to constantly provide feedback as opposed to setting sessions up in a when needed, random fashion.

How To Fix It: Ensure a clear understanding of the objectives of each sprint, program Increment, workstream, or project and focus feedback on those. If feedback has been specifically requested within a specific and reasonable timeframe, highlight and broadcast the consequences of hesitation or even pushing it to the back burner. Again, empathize with all stakeholders and take their perspective into consideration. Even with a set cadence of feedback loops, ad-hoc anomalies often arise in the interim, so ensure there is a fast track alternative for rapid feedback, ideation, solutioning, and making actionable decisions.

Lack of Actionability

Feedback does not provide clear direction, actions, or steps that could, at the very least, be experimented or prototyped to ensure feasibility and viability.

How To Fix It: Did we mention that empathy plays a huge role? Simply ask the individual or team providing the feedback if they truly believe it is possible, why they think so, and how they would go about it if it was them doing the work. Promote the practice of experimentation, prototyping and testing to avoid wasting time, effort, money and everyone’s cognitive load.

Sugar Coated Feedback

We all know what sugar coating looks, sounds, and feels like. Lawyers call this “bending the truth.” It not only skews everyone’s perception of urgency, severity and importance, it also provides a false sense of security which reduces the appetite to change. It could take forever to get to the core of the feedback and time is money. Sugar coating often ramifies in verbosity or lengthy emails as the feedback provider pads the message and circles the truth.

How To Fix It: It does not need to be brash or blunt but feedback must cut to the core of the issue. Stick to the facts. Patrick Moynihan’s quote puts it in a nutshell;

You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”

Good facilitators will:

  • Remind all of the benefits of timing and truth
  • Keep it factual and to the point
  • Control ‘band standing”
  • Be vigilant for verbosity
  • Time box each contribution
  • Maintain a standard format and cadence

Inconclusive Neutral Feedback

This is very common in certain work cultures and organizations and often not easy to spot. Some people don’t want to risk sticking their neck out or shine a spotlight on themselves. Neutral feedback is the easiest and most dangerous anti-pattern. The problem with neutral feedback is that there is a danger of teams defaulting to a neutral stance to get along and not be ostracized. Neutral feedback is easy to give because it doesn’t call for a detailed explanation, but neutral feedback is just that, neutral. It adds no value at all because the team assumes that “no news is good news” and starts believing that there is no room for improvement. As a result, continual learning and improvement quickly becomes impossible. If there’s nothing specifically good to say, then that can actually be an indicator that the project isn’t as good as it could be. Direction is the key to effectiveness, without it even the most efficient team will find themselves trailing behind and wasting valuable resources.

How To Fix It: Look out for feedback providers that have little to contribute in your sessions. Observe tone and non-verbal cues. They are the ones that are less animated, quieter and agree to all perspectives and opinions as opposed to adding or subtracting from them. They often are the ones working on their laptop or phone during the session. Once identified, make a habit of asking them for their opinion or advice on how they would tackle the issue, then probe with open ended questions that cannot have a binary answer.

Voting and or surveys are a great way to get them off the fence and expose their stance. SAFe has a super technique for visible voting on confidence called the “fist of fives.” We use this in many feedback loops because there is no way someone can sit on the fence. It is also difficult to provide binary feedback, especially in a group setting. The Fist of Five’s allows for a “degrees of” approach, making it more anonymous, easier and quicker.

Assessing Negative Feedback

A fair amount of people are scared of giving negative feedback, but it isn’t something you should be afraid of. Constricting your feedback because you’re afraid of conflict or want to be liked by all isn’t useful to the end goal of the project. Giving good feedback, even if it’s negative, not only aids improvement for all but, with continual reinforcement, fosters the confidence required to establish a safe place for further feedback. It’s less about the feedback provided, and more about how it’s delivered.

In project management, the ability to give effective negative feedback is essential for maintaining team performance and achieving project goals. Negative feedback, when delivered constructively, helps individuals identify areas of improvement and rectify issues that may be hindering progress. To begin with, it is crucial that feedback is specific and objective. Rather than making general or personal comments, focus on concrete examples of behaviors, practices, processes, and standards that need improvement.

Feedback that is overly negative and non-constructive can be a poison that seeps into your team, decreasing the team’s motivation, drive, and excitement for the project. A discouraged team can ultimately lead toward project derailment or project failure, not to mention staff churn and the loss of intellectual property. 

Don’t Forget Positive Feedback

Just as negative feedback is key to improving your project, positive feedback is key to motivating and driving your team in the right direction. It not only points out what they’re doing right, but provides opportunities to celebrate the wins along the journey, which feeds momentum. Team morale is the lifeblood of every project. When morale starts to head south, so does your project, leading to catastrophic effects.

Highlight and celebrate wins as often as possible, you’d be surprised by the effects it will have on productivity and quality. 

Conclusion: Paving The Path To Success With Project Feedback Loops

Successfully managing feedback loops, whether positive, negative, or neutral in a project can make the difference between a project’s success or failure. Negative feedback, when delivered constructively, is indispensable for identifying areas of improvement and mitigating potential issues before they escalate. Conversely, positive feedback boosts team morale and reinforces effective behaviors, while neutral feedback must be carefully managed to avoid a lack of direction, ambiguity and missed opportunities for growth. By fostering an environment where feedback is timely, specific, and action-oriented, project managers can drive their teams toward excellence and ensure that every iteration brings the project closer to its goals. Building a culture of continuous feedback not only enhances project outcomes but also empowers team members to develop and perform at their best.

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