Yoram Solomon, PhD
Feedback and Feed-Forward (TRUST and Feedback—Part VI)
There is a new approach to feedback, referred to as “feed-forward” (compared to “feed backward,” which is what the classic type of feedback is referred to). The idea behind “feed-forward” is that instead of giving feedback after the deed is done, when there is no opportunity to implement this feedback (at least not on the deed that was already done), you should give “course corrections” while the work is still being done. It is forward-looking (thus “feed-forward”) compared with backward-looking (thus “feed-back”). In this article, I explain more about the philosophy of feed-forward, compare it with classical feedback, and provide tips on deciding which one you should choose in a specific situation.
The concept of Feed-Forward was first developed by Marshall Goldsmith. I can’t say that I am a master of the process or even fully on board with it. For me, it’s one of those things that depends on the context. I’ll start by explaining the concept of feed-forward, compared with the “classic” feedback.
Feed-forward focuses on giving feedback while the action is still taking place and not after it’s done. You can refer to it as a course correction while the car is still driving. And if I continue the analogy: feedback will sound like, “you arrived a mile away from your destination,” while feed-forward will sound like, “turn a little more to the left, so you don’t end up a mile away from your destination.”
The advocates of feed-forward point to the following problems with classic feedback:
It shuts down mental dashboards. You feel under attack (there is nothing we can do after the fact to fix what was already done)
It focuses on ratings and grading and not development (because you can’t develop the past)
It reinforces negative behaviors because you are more inclined to justify what you’ve done since you can’t change it anymore
Conversely, the advantages of feed-forward are stated as follows:
It regenerates talent and offers opportunities for growth by forcing you into new directions
It expands possibilities, driving you to consider new possibilities before it is too late
It is particular. Instead of a data dump, it offers more specific feedback on something going on right now
It is more authentic because it is given when you can still do something about it, rather than judgemental, after the fact
It has an impact because you can still change what is not in the past
It refines group dynamics, having less of a command-and-control style, and more peer-feedback
When to Use Which?
Unlike the advocates of feed-forward who passionately point out the drawbacks of the classic feedback, I consider both approaches valid. Both had advantages and disadvantages, and the appropriate approach would be to choose what’s better suited for the situation at hand. Here are my considerations for deciding when to use each.
Supporters of feed-forward claim that classic feedback is given when there is no chance to do anything about it. The did is done. However, while it may be done once, it could be something that will be repeated in the future. Giving me feedback after I’m done driving is still useful because there will likely be more times I will drive in the future. When dealing with an action that will never be repeated, you may benefit from the advantages of feed-forward, increasing the probability of a good outcome out of the first (and only) time this action will take place.
While you’re focused on the action itself, you may not be able to take the course corrections offered through feed-forward. Thus it will be less effective than getting the feedback after the action is over, and you’re more available mentally to absorb feedback.
Sometimes, the best experience is firsthand experience gained through trial and error. I will let you make a mistake and learn from it afterward and give standard feedback (if even needed). I could have told my daughter to never lock the keys inside her car every time she went driving, and it wouldn’t make much difference. She would just shrug her shoulders, roll her eyes, and say, “sure, dad….” All it took was once she did lock her keys inside the car for it never to happen again.
When the stakes are high, feed-forward can reduce the consequences of mistakes. When you see someone about to make a costly mistake, sometimes a mistake that can cost lives, it might be better to provide feed-forward before that mistake occurs. It is better to say, “you are a little too close to the parked cars on the right,” than to wait until your student driver hits one of them. In some cases, letting something bad happen could have minimal negative consequences, but if not stopped when the consequences are minimal, it might be too late or even impossible to stop them when they are big. In other words, stop it when it’s a molehill before it becomes a mountain, and you will not be able to stop it anymore.
Advocates of feed-forward refer to it as being specific, addressing little things, one at a time. Some people may consider that to be micromanagement. When you micromanage someone, they tend to relinquish their responsibility to you and rely on you to continue to correct them. It can reduce their perceived autonomy, and they may defer to follow your instructions rather than think for themselves.
When the action is over, the cause-and-effect is much clearer because the results (or consequences) are in, and you know what they are. But when the action is still ongoing, the cause-and-effect link is still uncertain. Does the person offering the feed-forward really know what the result will be? How certain are they? Could there be other possible outcomes from this action? What would happen if the feed-forward you offered was wrong? Who would be responsible?
From the considerations listed above, you can see two things. First, both methods have advantages and disadvantages, and none of them is better than the other. Second, the decision between them is contextual and should be made with the specific circumstances in mind and not selected blindly.
Finally, everything I wrote in the previous five articles in this mini-series about feedback is still valid. Knowing when, where, and how to give feedback, how to take feedback, and all the other considerations should still be made, regardless of whether you are giving (or being given) “classic” feedback or feed-forward.