As software consultants, we are sometimes asked to provide our perspective on team skills, practices, tools, effectiveness, etc. in addition to designing and building software. It’s common for the whole team to share feedback openly during sprint retrospectives. However, it can feel awkward and intimidating when an individual or small group privately singles you out and asks for feedback.
With some guidance and preparation, these conversations can be productive and positive. Here are some questions I keep in mind when responding to a request for feedback about a team we’re working with.
Understand who is asking for feedback.
The individual or group who is asking for feedback matters. A quick survey of the questions below helps me tailor the topics and my planned approach. This helps me be respectful to the whole team, helpful to the requestor, and aware of opportunities and potential pitfalls.
Are they a peer team member? If so, it can probably be a more casual, less formal conversation.
Do they have considerably more or less career/life experience than me? Either way, ask about their experiences rather than assuming.
Are they a manager or higher-up at the client organization? Consider the optics of the situation. Are there conversations you should have with other team members to prepare or set people at ease?
What is your relationship like with them? Can you speak openly without worrying that they will misunderstand, take things out of context, or over-amplify the negative or positive connotations of your remarks? Or do you need to be polished and more prepared to ensure clear, useful communication?
Is the person asking me for feedback the one who’s really initiating the request? Are they going to be the ultimate recipient or are they going to pass the information along? Will it be attributed to me or aggregated or anonymized?
Understand why I’m being asked for feedback.
There are a variety of reasons that a client might ask me for feedback. It is important to understand why they are asking so that I can tailor the conversation to meet their needs and desire to engage. If the reasons are unclear, it’s worth asking the question directly. There are two parts to this question:
Why are they seeking feedback?
Are they concerned or curious about their own skills? Are they a manager trying to keep a finger on the pulse of the team and understand how things are going? In these situations, I expect a moderate level of engagement. I typically seek to understand their own assessment as a starting point and then engage in the topics they care about most where I can provide a helpful perspective.
Have you had feedback conversations with this person before and they’re following up? Do they suspect or already know about a problem or opportunity to improve? I expect deeper engagement and earnest conversation in these types of situations. I will work to create a safe space to speak plainly and respectfully about topics that the person should be involved with.
Is it just a part of the process they have to complete? Are they getting pressure to ask and just want to check it off their to-do list? I expect only surface-level engagement but try to keep an open mind if I find more engagement as the conversation begins. My goal in these conversations is normally for the other person to get some helpful information without pushing too far beyond their expectations. Perhaps that information would be a list of topics to discuss as a team or an affirmation that their assessment isn’t wildly off base.
Sometimes, a client team member is only looking for surface-level engagement but the team needs them to get deeper. Those conversations are more challenging, but I’m usually the one initiating those. The book Crucial Conversations is a resource I recommend. Aside from that recommendation, though, I’m going to skirt that issue in this post to focus on other dimensions.
Why do they believe I’m in a position to give it?
Do they view me as an expert in some part of our technical practice or process? I’m happy to share my perspective and experience, but these usually aren’t decision-making conversations because of the limited audience. These are topics the team should be broadly engaged in.
Have I been working closely with a person or team they’re seeking feedback about? I’m likely to be more guarded and cautious in these conversations to avoid damaging trust or feeding unhelpful gossip.
Am I the outsider with a different perspective than their internal team? In that conversation, I focus on understanding the team’s perspective and making it clear that I probably still don’t have a full picture of the tradeoffs a team is making before I discuss my perspective, share examples of how my teams have approached similar situations, and cite industry leaders I respect.
If there’s someone else on the team I think they should be talking to about the topics they have in mind, I’m quick to mention that they should follow up with that person directly. I may still have a cursory conversation if I have a good relationship with the recommended expert and I’m pretty confident I can represent a perspective that’s aligned with theirs.
Understand what feedback I’m being asked for.
Similar to the “who?” and “why?” questions above, understanding what topics someone is asking for feedback on is important. So, when I get a context-free meeting invitation titled “Feedback,” I’m going to dig in and get more information. It’s absolutely fair to ask for more context ahead of a feedback conversation, and the “what?” question is usually at the top of my list in that ask.
Do they want to talk about processes and practices? Great! I’m full of opinions and happy to share them, as long as we can both acknowledge that my way is probably not the only way to be effective and that team involvement in these conversations is important. We’d better book some extra time.
Is there a technical evaluation involved? Maybe we’ll discuss the health of the team’s codebase or the limitations of tooling used to build a legacy system. I’m especially mindful of showing respect to tradeoffs in these conversations. That’s because we seldom have the whole story, and I know people could throw some pretty harsh judgments my way without understanding context and tradeoffs.
Or, is this going to be a people conversation, covering topics of performance or interpersonal conflict? In the first conversation of this type with someone, I’m likely to do more listening and asking questions than sharing my own observations.
Come back for part two!
Join me for the next installment in Client Team Feedback where I share my goals when providing feedback. Until then!