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Feedforward vs Feedback, Marshall Goldsmith

At a recent conference one of the delegates said, “we should feedforward rather than give feedback”. This struck a chord with me as I frequently talk about feedback, the ‘F’ of FACTS, but have not talked about feedforward.

In the 2002 article “Try Feedforward Instead of Feedback” Marshall Goldsmith said “…provide feedforward – that is, to give someone else suggestions for the future… that might help them achieve a positive change in their selected behavior.”

feedforward picture for blog

So feedforward is offering constructive guidance on how to do better in future work. In Challenging Coaching, we emphasise the importance of feedback and agree with what Ken Blanchard said that, “feedback is the breakfast of champions”. However, there is a lot of criticism about feedback and the impact when badly delivered. A common criticism is that feedback is after the event; so what’s the point? If feedback only focuses on the past, it is no more than a report on history and as we know we cannot change the past, but we can change the future. I also wonder about the intention of the person providing the feedback if the focus of the comments is only on looking backwards. It is no wonder that feedback is seen as negative criticism if it is only a comment on the past with no connection to the present or future. I remember in the early days of talking about FACTS coaching that an experienced coach said, “Once you have dumped all this feedback on the person, what are they meant to do?” Clearly this person did not see the value of feedback. Often views like this are driven from personal experience and I am sure we all have much anecdotal evidence about the negative impact of poorly delivered feedback.

Maybe feedforward is a way to remove all the baggage around feedback? Maybe this is a step change that gets rid of unnecessary feedback that is personal, historic and leads to defensive negative response? Offering suggestions for the future is an alternative approach focusing on all the positives and avoiding any of the negatives. Feedforward is almost always seen as positive because it focuses on solutions rather than problems.

Marshall Goldsmith suggests that when providing feedforward use statements such as “Here are four ideas for the future. Please accept these in the positive spirit that they are given. If you can only use two of the ideas, you are still two ahead. Just ignore what doesn’t make sense for you.” This is a great positive non-judgemental statement.

However, feedforward is not the miracle cure. As historians tell us if we can learn the lessons of the past, we will be able to avoid making mistakes in the future. We cannot ignore the past just because we are uncomfortable or unskilled in providing feedback. If we provide feedforward without reason it is without context, it is without reality, it is without meaning and will be without impact. The person receiving the feedforward may say “I don’t understand why you are making this suggestion, what relevance does it have to me, and why are you saying this?” We need to understand and be connected with the past to provide context. As the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset said, “We need to study the whole of history, not to fall back into it, but to see if we can escape from it”.

Also by providing feedforward only we are avoiding going into the Zone of Uncomfortable Debate (ZOUD), and we are choosing to limit ourselves and others by staying in the Zone of Comfortable Debate.

In Challenging Coaching we talk about feedback that is future focused so that it is useful in guiding future decisions, actions and behaviours. I would suggest that focusing on the past is not sufficient, but also concentrating on the future is limited. The combination of the two is important. I would like to provide an equation to explain this:

Feedback + Feedforward = Awareness + Change.

How does feedforward fit into your coaching? How do you feel about providing suggestions for the future?

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Be ready to transform but do not provoke, illuminate the darkness of ignorance but do not blind (Tao Te Ching, Verse 58)