How can leaders incorporate a feedforward approach

As someone who leads or manages people, giving your team constructive feedback will be an important part of your role. It is an essential skill to master so that employees know that their performance is aligning to expectations and they are achieving the outcomes required of the business; and if not, they need to know to what and how to change.

Most organisations communicate this via feedback. Many of us know what feedback is, and have experienced it throughout our educational, professional, and personal lives. Organisations operate in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world though, and that means that they should be functioning in a dynamic way to keep up and deliver in this type of environment.

This is where an issue arises with feedback – it focuses on the past and behaviour or actions that have already occurred. This means it’s too late to change the behaviour and outcomes, and can ultimately result in lost opportunities to change and grow.

To increase the effectiveness of feedback, many managers, leaders and organisations are looking to a different type of “feedback”: a “feedforward” approach.

Feedforward approach compared to a feedback approach

The main differences between the two approaches are:

  • Feedback looks at the past performance, “mistakes”, situations, events, behaviour, or actions of an employee; feedforward looks at what an employee can do to improve for the future while they are still completing their project or tasks, and is focused on future development. For example, if an employee is working on a project or task, instead of waiting until they have completed it and giving feedback on the good parts and areas for improvement they will hopefully undertake in the future, a manager can review progress and offer suggestions for strengthening what they are already doing. When done correctly, it can even help motivate them to work towards achieving better results since they are motivated to improve skills and production, and know the steps they need to take in order to achieve this.
  • Feedback is given to employees with the goal of influencing future behaviour, but it ultimately leaves the necessary adjustments to be undertaken by its employees since they decide how to apply feedback to their future work. Feedforward is an ongoing conversation between employees and managers that focuses on offering suggestions and changes to work and processes “as they go”, in order to change that behaviour.
  • Feedback can often be good for a review of processes and general ways of doing things; feedforward is focused on improving work and output as it is being done. The idea is that by offering suggestions for improvements for the future, rather than focusing on past failures or shortcomings, the chances of success are higher.
  • Feedforward is predictive and looks at how current behaviour may affect future performance and outcomes. It therefore aims to improve any future behaviour, rather than wait for the outcome and communicating on overall performance after the behaviour has occurred, like feedback does. It’s about what comes next, rather than a review of everything that already went wrong.

Benefits of a feedforward approach

There are a number of benefits to using a feedforward approach:

  • Feedforward can be seen as more positive, and less judgmental than feedback because of its future-focused nature. In this sense, it can be an important tool for a manager or leader to use to maintain or improve an employee’s motivation and commitment to their tasks.
  • It reinforces a growth mindset and the possibility of change as opposed to focusing on a past which cannot be changed.
  • Feedforward results tend to occur faster and more efficiently those requested via feedback, due to the ongoing communication throughout an employee’s work tasks.
  • It can create stronger bonds and levels of trust between managers and employees, create a better sense of job security for employees, and can inspire employees to see growth opportunities for themselves and the company.
  • There is a focus on solutions rather than problems, meaning that it can also be a more collaborative, team effort which can lead to enhanced learning and results.
  • It occurs in manageable stages; feedback often occurs in set meetings such as performance reviews or regular meetings. Feedforward is ongoing and occurs in day-to-day work, only focusing on certain things at the one time, so it can be more manageable and effective to tweak behaviour.
  • It can come across as more authentic from managers and leaders, so when implemented in the right way, can be an effective team management tool.

Important elements to consider when using a feedforward approach

Whilst it has many benefits, feedforward should not be used in isolation and should not replace feedback or performance reviews completely; they still have a time, place and purpose. The focus is on day-to-day interactions and tasks, and so should therefore be frequent, ongoing, and consistent. This means that employees know what to expect and continue to be encouraged by the future-focused vision.

When incorporating a feedforward approach into your team and shifting the culture to one of open collaboration and ideas, it may be useful to tie goals and objectives to feedforward communication and ideas so that it is a clearer process for employees and they recognise the end goal and feel a sense of accomplishment in working towards these goals.
Regardless of what approach you use, quality communication and a clear definition of goals and objectives is key to organisational and team success.

Whilst using feedforward can improve the quality of your team’s communication and make your team more dynamic to a VUCA environment, feedback still has its place and a combination of both can drive even further improvement and results. If you are interested in incorporating feedforward approaches to coaching and team management in your organisation, or learn how to recruit the best talent who are able to utilise this in their teams, contact us today.