Why People on Agile Teams Need Feedback

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Agile teams work by continually improving, and feedback is essential for agile methods to work well. Giving feedback to your team members and peers is hard, and receiving it is sometimes harder, especially when it’s not delivered with the right amount of thought.

Feedback, especially negative feedback, is an important part of the improvement process, as a recent Freakanomics podcast (via Marketplace) explains. Negative feedback is how you learn to change for the better. High performers are often high performers specifically because they’re good at accepting negative feedback, so taking advantage of opportunities for feedback can help individuals and the team.

But you can’t just have negative feedback. Positive feedback is important and essential to getting people invested in a project. 

There are many occasions for feedback on a team. One-on-ones provide an opportunity for managers and team members to give open feedback to each other. But one-on-ones can’t be the only forum for feedback. If you are a manager or team lead, it’s important to not let management one-on-ones get in the way of feedback between team members. People need to address issues directly.

Feedback isn’t just something that’s shared from manager to employee. Employee to manager feedback is essential for managers to improve their skills. Not all managers understand this, and providing feedback to a boss can be tricky at times.

Amy Gallo writes on the Harvard Business Review blog about how to give your boss feedback. She discusses some important issues, such as how to offer feedback when you haven’t been explicitly asked, how to frame feedback, and how to handle it when your boss doesn’t take the feedback well.

A more formal opportunity for feedback related to work on a project is a retrospective. A retrospective’s goal is to gather feedback on how the team did during a period of work, but since team actions result from individual actions, there is opportunity to improve how you work. A retrospective is really about the team, so be careful if one or two people are dominating a retrospective. Esther Derby warns that this is one of the eight reasons retrospectives fail.

The best feedback comes from team members. Michael James provides some guidance on how to help a coworker improve his code. Michael makes the point that bad code on a project is your problem, and improving the quality of code helps you and everyone else on the team. Although he doesn’t explain how to have a conversation about the subject, he does point out how an agile project provides a framework for coaching and improvement.

One of the best resources I’ve found for guidance about how to have difficult conversations in the context of a technical project is Jerry Weinberg’s book Becoming a Technical Leader. No matter what your role on a project, it’s important to spend some energy learning the value of feedback—how to give and how to receive it effectively. Feedback skills will help both your team and your career.

Do you have some good stories about feedback delivered well or poorly? Do you wish that you got more feedback? Have you felt like you wanted to offer feedback to someone on how they gave feedback?

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Steve Berczuk

Steve Berczuk is a Principal Engineer and ScrumMaster at Fitbit in Boston, MA. He is the author of Software Configuration Management Patterns: Effective Teamwork, Practical Integration, and has an M.S. in operations research from Stanford University and an S.B. in Electrical Engineering from MIT.