Looking Forward

“Feedforward” sounds like some eating technique you’d see advertised on late-night TV, guaranteeing weight loss with a faster metabolism. Sorry, folks: Feedforward won’t make you thinner, but it may make you happier.

Instead of feedback - rehashing a past that cannot be changed - Jon Katzenbach (author of The Wisdom of Teams) and I coined feedforward to encourage leaders spending time creating a positive future. In practicing feedforward, coworkers are taught to ask for suggestions for the future, listen to ideas, and just say thank you. No one is allowed to critique suggestions or to bring up the past.

How many hours of organizational time and productivity are lost in the endless retelling of our coworkers’ blunders? How much internal stress do we generate reliving real or imagined slights?

On too many occasions, “team building” feedback degenerates into “Let me tell you what you did wrong” and not “Let me ask you what we can do better.”

A Buddhist parable illustrates the challenge - and value - of letting go of the past. Two monks were strolling by a stream on their way home to the monastery. They were startled by the sound of a young woman in a bridal gown, sitting by the stream, crying softly.

Tears rolled down her cheeks as she gazed across the water. She needed to cross to get to her wedding, but she was fearful that doing so might ruin her beautiful handmade gown.

In this particular sect, monks were prohibited from touching women.

But one monk was filled with compassion for the bride. Ignoring the sanction, he hoisted the woman on his shoulders and carried her across the stream–assisting her journey and saving her gown. She smiled and bowed with gratitude as he noisily splashed his way back across the stream to rejoin his companion.

The second monk was livid. “How could you do that?” he scolded. “You know we are forbidden even to touch a woman, much less pick one up and carry her around!”

The offending monk listened in silence to a stern lecture that lasted all the way back to the monastery. His mind wandered as he felt the warm sunshine and listened to the singing birds. After returning to the monastery, he fell asleep for a few hours. He was jostled and awakened in the middle of the night by his fellow monk. “How could you carry that woman?” his agitated friend cried out. “Someone else could have helped her across the stream. You were a bad monk!”

“What woman?” the tired monk inquired groggily.

“Don’t you even remember? That woman you carried across the stream,” his colleague snapped.

“Oh, her,” laughed the sleepy monk. “I only carried her across the stream. You carried her all the way back to the monastery.”

The learning point is simple: Leave it at the stream.

Have you ever been amazed by a colleague’s near- photographic memory of your previous “sins,” which have been meticulously catalogued and are then shared with you as part of an ongoing effort to help you improve? How much does this really help?

Try to remember the last time someone told you something that sounded like this: “Let me point out what you did wrong in the past.” How did that make you feel? What happened to the quality of your relationship? Were you more inspired?

Now try to remember the last time you asked someone for suggestions and heard, “Here are some ideas for the future. I hope that some are helpful to you.” How did you feel then? What happened to the quality of your relationship? Were you more inspired?

I have watched tens of thousands of leaders practice feedforward. After this practice, I ask them which words best describe this activity. “Helpful,” “great,” “useful,” and “practical” are often mentioned. And the most commonly mentioned word? “Fun.”

What is the last word that you think of when you get feedback about the past? Fun. Remember when a boss called you up and sternly requested, “Why don’t you come to my office? I have some feedback for you.” I doubt your reaction was a joyous “Sounds like fun.”

I am not suggesting that we should always let go of the past. Feedback is sometimes necessary and sometimes useful. However, we can often cover almost all of the same ground by just sharing ideas for the future.

Race-car drivers are taught, “Look at the road ahead.”

Who knows? Not only may it help you win the race but you’ll definitely have a better trip around the track.

Life is good.




Tags: , , , ,

3 Responses to “Looking Forward”

  1. dhember Says:

    I very much like the idea of “feedforward” rather than “feedback”. I recall your (Mr. Goldsmith’s) Ten Commandments of Feedback:
    1. Let go of the past
    2. Tell the truth
    3. Be supportive and helpful -not cynical or negative
    4. Focus on “improving” rather than “judging”

    Feedback or “feeding forward” is certainly always more effective if one does not dwell on the past and rather focuses on the present or future. However, it is important to cite specific instances (most likely in the past) in order to provide the recipient with examples of their behavior that needs correction. But, after citing these specific instances one should immediately “move on” and focus on the future. So, to sum up my argument, while I do believe it is far more constructive and effective to “forget” the past and focus on the future, I believe one must reference the past briefly (it is only fair to provide them with an example) and then move on and work on improving in the future. I believe this is the only way to effective lead and manage employees with feedback.

  2. garzaak Says:

    I think that “feedforward” is an exceptional idea. As Marshall Goldsmith states, the two biggest problems with giving successful people negative feedback is that “they don’t want to hear it” and “we don’t want to give it”. This is one of the reasons that some organizations don’t implement an official feedback system despite its potential value. Feedforward would give subordinates an opportunity to give advice to their superiors in a positive and constructive fashion. Feedforward is another one of Marshall’s simple changes that can have an incredible impact.

  3. kdemotte Says:

    It’s been my experience since being introduced to Marshall in August of ‘08 at the National Speakers Association meeting in New York, that referencing the past (quoting dhember above “one must reference the past briefly (it is only fair to provide them with an example) and then move on and work on improving in the future”) in any way, may be the encumbrance that delays action…since it tales the subject back to all his or her coded histories. It’s my current interpretation that it is the SUBJECT that decides what he or she wants to work on, and for his or her reasons, not the coach. so the SUBJECT says I want to let go of…start…stop…improve….and they’re reasons internally reference their own past. My pointing it out to them (and I did at first) took the exercise off track. Just my observation.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.