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On Constructive Feedback and Learning By Watching

I am going to do something here I normally wouldn’t. Lift Bill Higgins entire post. Its worth reading in full and I am sure he won’t mind. For anyone that has ever tried to give, or receive advice or feedback:

Marcus Aurelius begins his Meditations by giving thanks for the qualities he gained through observation of others who exhibited those qualities. On a much humbler scale, I recently reflected that my personality has changed as a result of observing the constructive behavior of my project leaders.

One example of this happened at the end of 2006. The day before we were supposed to freeze code for the year, I assisted another developer on a late-breaking severe defect. Unfortunately we didn’t test the fix adequately and it led to another defect which I discovered two hours after the final scheduled build completed. Sleep-deprived and stressed, I forgot about the code freeze and delivered a fix to the second defect. Fifteen minutes after delivering the patch, one of our senior technical people sent out an email reminding everyone that the codebase was frozen. I felt horrible because I’d committed a major faux pas at the most critical period in the development cycle. With great embarrassment, I sent a follow-up email to the project, notifying them of my mistake.

The next morning I came into the RTP lab for the end-game planning call with the PMC and component leads. I went to a meeting room and found John Wiegand and Scott Rich, who at this point were fully aware of the mistake I made. With a sheepish smile, I asked “Can I buy anyone a coffee?” Scott replied “You’re not forgiven that easily. What you did last night requires coffee and donuts.” John said, “Well, we all screw up from time to time, and the important thing is that you recognized the mistake and, to look at the positive aspect of it, the feature now works.” And that was that. In the end it turned out that there were a few other lingering bugs in the final scheduled build so we did one more build and all was well.

Another example was my mid-year checkpoint with Erich Gamma, reviewing the progress on the subsystem that I lead. My team was struggling at the time. In some very new technical territory, we were progressing more slowly than anyone would have liked. I was dreading the call, because Erich’s sort of a professional hero of mine, so I really wasn’t looking forward to hearing him tell me that things weren’t going well. But the call wasn’t like that at all. He began by reflecting on the things we’d accomplished and what had gone well. Only after a few minutes of discussing accomplishments did he gently segue into the discussion of areas that needed improvement. We prioritized a list of architectural features and user scenarios, and then worked through the details of what my team would need from other teams to succeed. I left the call feeling energized about what I was confident we could achieve, and over the past six months, I’m confident that we’ve met or exceeded those expectations.

At Toastmasters, an excellent structured program for confident public speaking and leadership, they use a very simple mechanism- commend, recommend, commend. Start by saying what’s good, right; what you like about someone’s performance. Then go on to what could be improved. And then finally finish on a high with something to make the feedback feel positive rather the negative. Its not about criticism but feedback. I have tried to internalise the C-R-C format but don’t always manage it – as many of my clients (and all of my colleagues) know…

I interrupt a lot but I am a pretty good listener. I am very confident of my opinions and judgement: its just who I am. I am also willing to admit I was wrong. I try and offer constructive feedback whether I am dealing with clients, colleagues or my family, but its great to read a post like Bill’s which reminds me that interactions can be fraught with elements and emotions you don’t see on the surface. If someone does screw up though its best not to punish them for it. Of course it helps that the people working with Bill are some of the most incredible technical leaders anywhere- Erich Gamma and John Weigand- that’s some serious pedagogy. You really have to see these guys talking about the rhythm of software development.

I also like the fact Bill distinguishes between a couple of different types of learning. Learning by observation and learning by doing. Both are extremely valuable. I am grateful for the education I got by watching Jonathan Eunice at Illuminata. He taught me a lot by being awesome, but of course he also made mistakes – to err is human – which hopefully I also learned from.

Jon Udell is building a body of work and knowledge around learning by watching, so I will be watching him. And he will hopefully be watching me. That’s the thing about learning-its really best when its a two way street, and that’s the key to Bill’s story. What I would really like to see? These stories from John and Erich’s points of view.

I will sign out with a super-condensed version of the Meditations from Glyn Hughes, which talks to Stoicism (its pretty clear Aurelias would have hated the blogosphere…)

My grandfather Verus taught me to be candid and to control my temper. I thank the gods that my relatives and servants were almost all good persons, that my wife is deferential, affectionate and frugal, and that, when I came to philosophy I did not waste time in logic or reading. Put away your books and face the matter itself. As for your body, value it no more than if you were just expiring; it is nothing but a little blood and bones. Your breath is but a little air pumped in and out. But the third part is your mind. Here make a stand.

Remember that you are a man and a Roman, and let your actions be done with dignity, gravity, humanity, freedom and justice; let every action be done as though it were your last. Have neither insincerity nor self-love. Pleasure and pain, riches and poverty – all these are common to the virtuous and the depraved, and therefore intrinsically neither good not evil.

Do not spend your thoughts upon other people, nor pry into the talk, fancies and projects of another, nor guess at what he is about, or why he is doing it. Let your choice run all one way, and be resolute for that which is best. And to this end be always provided with a few short, uncontested notions, to keep your understanding true. The whole world is but one commonwealth, for there is no other society in which mankind can be incorporated. Whatever is agreeable to You, O Universe, is so to me, too. Mankind are poor, transitory things; one day in life, and the next turned to ashes. Go straight forward, pursuing your own and the common interest. We ought to live with the gods. But let all be done out of mere love and kindness. Reflect upon those who have made the most glorious figure or have met with the greatest misfortunes. Where are they all now? They are vanished like a little smoke.

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2 Responses

  1. Great post.

    Interesting thing about the Toastmasters C-R-C format is that the same concept is applied by intelligence gatherers (competitive intelligence folks in the corporate world and those government intelligence). When trying to elicit some information from a source, the approach is to ask direct questions about non-threatening topics at both the beginning and end of a conversation, but in the middle use a number of techniques (never direct questions) to work around to the information you seek to elicit.

    The idea is pretty simple. People tend to remember the beginning and ends of conversations much more than the middle, and are also able to recall direct questions. A person highly skilled in elicitation techniques will get the information they seek while leaving their source unaware of what they have divulged.

    However, I’d guess it is hardly the objective at Toastmasters to have the contructive feedback forgotten while the glowing praise gets etched in our memory.



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