Real Leaders

How to Feedforward, and Never Feedback

Serious grey man wearing eyeglasses thinking and looking forward in office

We were a young breakaway agency, packed with talent and hungry for all the opportunities we could get. Our overhead included a ridiculously large budget for salaries that had to be covered every month. We brought in all the clients we could and always asked for their feedback on our work and our agency — how did we do? What could we have done better? Like many start-up businesses, we thought asking for feedback would prove useful and demonstrate that we valued the client relationship above all else. We asked for feedback on almost everything.

Unquestionably, their feedback was filled with good intentions. But our clients tended to be untrained in how to deliver useful feedback. It was often filled with a mix of minute details and opinions, focusing on what was wrong rather than a balanced, useful perspective. The process created tension — our clients were uncomfortable giving feedback and tensed up when they had to. The very act of providing feedback seemed to put them into a negative mindset — the higher the tension, the more negative their feedback.

We’d respond to client feedback as best we could. But it ate up time, eroded our already thin margin, often failed to improve the work, and occasionally increased friction with clients rather than decreased it. We knew there had to be a better way. It was a client-sponsored program that showed a better way, and I have used it ever since: forget about feedback and just focus on feedforward.

We found feedforward could be easily used by even the youngest and most naive clients to give clear future direction. We grabbed the idea and ran with it, using it with every client and internally on candidates, appraisals, office designs, pitch work, and each other. Doing so saved us work, time and money, and helped improve pretty much everything.

While it’s especially useful for agencies and clients, feedforward can work for any enterprise. It can result in meaningful information from any stakeholder, from leadership to consumers. As businesses get back on their feet, we’re facing a climate that’s more competitive than ever, and feedforward can help gain a tremendous advantage.

Here’s how it works:

Get your eyes out of the rear-view mirror. 

Feedback looks at where you were, not where you need to go. It tends to highlight what was wrong, taking energy and focus away from steps for improvement. Meanwhile, time marches on, and you get closer to deadlines every day. Putting yourself in your client’s shoes, consider what it’s like to ride in a car when the driver is constantly checking behind rather than focusing on the road. Doesn’t inspire too much confidence, does it. Without necessarily knowing why, clients get uncomfortable. The friction comes from being asked to provide critique and being concerned that the process of responding could derail momentum and cause delays. 

Focus on what’s in front of you. 

The feedforward structure enables a response from even the most inexperienced clients in a stress-free, organized way. The result is an accurate map of what needs to happen next and a sense of collaboration and shared direction without tension. Couched in the positive, it also tends to build trust. The key is to begin by asking clients to note their instant gut reaction to a proposal, idea, or experience. Sometimes new ideas provoke uncomfortable feelings; we encourage clients to use these feelings as a signal that a new, different, or strong idea might be emerging. In other words, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that they are uneasy about a potential strategy or idea. In fact, it may be a sign of something good.

Ask four essential questions. 

Whoever is providing the feedforward, what’s needed is a response that covers all the bases and allows for everything from initial reactions to tapping into what seems like gut instincts to fuller guidance.

  1. What inspires, excites, or moves you? It could be anything, however small or relevant to the brief or work at hand.
  2. What works? Or what’s just okay? This is an opportunity to acknowledge which aspects are good but not amazing.
  3. What’s missing? This is the chance to give useful guidance. It could be that what’s missing is something that inspires or excites. Or it could be something more ordinary, such as the compulsory requests in a brief.
  4. What would make the idea bigger and better? This provides the opportunity to build on what has been done. It also allows clients and others to articulate ideas for the agency to consider.

Feedforward delivers on its full potential when those providing it are totally honest and open. We found that when questions are framed positively, it’s easier to be thorough. I recommend clients write down their feedforward before sharing it — since in conversations, we are often influenced by others. Writing feedforward in advance also gives a client team the chance to align their thoughts and keep the messaging consistent and on point.

What feedforward does is open up a sense of possibility.

Feedforward gives agency teams a way to feel great about what they’re already done and then build on it. It’s certainly worked that way in our firm and likely will in yours.

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