The Power of Feedforward

Effective executive coaches and leadership development experts have long been aware of a powerful technique called “Feedforward”—its name is meant to differentiate it from “Feedback.” Even if you don’t think you know about this technique, you probably do, and using it more often is bound to make you more effective in both your professional and personal lives. Our colleague Joshua Spodek does a superb job explaining Feedforward, so we asked him to share his explanation with our readers. If you like his writing, check out his enlightening and entertaining blog.

Here’s Josh:

What if I told you that the best way to improve yourself takes two minutes, costs nothing, can be done any time, and will cause people to feel honored and flattered to help? Sound too good to be true? It’s not.

If you want to improve your life and outcomes, getting others’ perspectives is indispensable. Most people get feedback: reviews from their managers at work, coaches in sports, friends in personal matters, and so on. But as much as feedback helps, it has limits, because fundamentally feedback evaluates the past.

Evaluation creates communication issues. People hold back information they think you won’t like hearing. If you ask someone how you did on a project and they say “You did X and Y great” does that mean you did great overall, or just that they didn’t want to tell you your mistakes? You’ll never know, even from friends, due to inherent issues of evaluation.

Asking about the past asks about something you can’t change. To improve based on feedback about the past, you have to translate it into what you can do now and in the future.

The term “Feedforward” is a wordplay on “feedback” because it looks forward instead of backward. The technique was popularized by the well-known author and coach Marshall Goldsmith, and it is a simple, two-minute practice that gets you more useful information than feedback and builds relationships in the process.

I teach Feedforward as a script, and you have to experience it to see how it works. Stick with the basic script at first, and then as you master it you can adapt it to your own style or different situations.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Identify something behavior-related that you want to improve—e.g., public speaking.
  2. Identify a person who is in a position to be helpful—e.g., someone who has seen you speak in public.
  3. Say to him or her: “I’d like to improve my public speaking. You’ve seen me and lots of other folks give presentations. Can you give me two or three pieces of advice that could help me?”
  4. Write the pieces of advice down. Clarify if necessary.
  5. Say “Thank you.”
  6. [Optional: Ask for accountability.]

Steps 1 and 2 you do on your own. You can pick anything about yourself that you want to improve—being more punctual, sleeping better, reading faster, losing weight, quitting smoking, saving more money—anything.

What you choose to improve will determine whom to ask. For work-related things you might ask colleagues or a mentor. To lose weight you might ask a friend who has done so himself. To improve relations with your father you might ask your sister who just improved her relationship with him. To enhance the first impressions you create, you could ask random strangers on the street.

Some people worry they'll bother people by using Feedforward. On the contrary, people will feel honored and flattered that you asked for their advice.

It’s especially important not to evaluate: introducing judgment limits effectiveness. In particular, Steps 4 and 5 keep you from responding critically to others’ advice. People rarely like being evaluated, especially when they are doing you a favor. Saying “That’s a great idea” or “That won’t work,” no matter how well-intentioned, provokes protectiveness—the opposite of openness. Saying something positive is still judging.

The most common mistake I see is to rephrase Step 3 to include something like “can you tell me how well I do this currently?” prompting judgment and thereby discouraging openness. Step 3 should ask for advice, not evaluation or judgment. Asking about the past leads people to evaluate your past, which creates the problems and limitations I noted earlier. A Feedforward exercise offers the value of feedback without its discomfort or holding back. If I ask people for Feedforward about public speaking and three of them tell me I should use more humor, I can tell they think I’m not funny. Feedback rarely gets you such direct information.

Step 6, which is optional, can make the difference between just hearing advice and acting on it. Most of us do what we’re accountable for. If someone gives you advice you want to follow, asking for accountability will increase the likelihood you’ll do it as well as the quality of your effort. For example, if you asked for advice on public speaking and someone suggested speaking every chance you get, from making a toast at dinner to giving a eulogy, you might say: “Thank you, I would like to follow that advice. I figure I’ll have a couple chances to speak per week. Would it be okay with you if I check in once a week for a few weeks to make sure I’m following your advice—maybe an email once a week. You don't have to respond. I just want to know I have to write.” Notice the request didn't say the idea was good or bad, which would be evaluative and risk discouraging them from helping.

I have been using Feedforward for quite a while now, in several ways and for several reasons:

  • To improve my behavior. My main application, this is what the technique is designed for.
  • To make connections more meaningful. I often use Feedforward to deepen conversations because asking people for advice makes them feel honored and open up. Who doesn't like being listened to?
  • To network. When I meet someone knowledgeable in a field I’m curious about, I’ll ask for Feedforward in their area of expertise. I find that doing so gets them talking.
  • To create leads. If you meet someone at a company where you’d like to work or do business, try using Feedforward before asking if the company is hiring. Better yet, use Feedforward for advice on how to connect with more people there. You'd be amazed at how much people who normally protect relationships help when you approach with Feedforward.
  • To resolve conflict. Feedforward helps in arguments, especially when emotions get intense. When someone is yelling at you for something they think you did wrong, it’s incredibly disarming to realize they're trying to give advice. Respond with “I’d like to improve that. Can you suggest how I can do it better?” and you'll get advice instead of judgment. (Note: I use the word disarming deliberately. Fights, especially with loved ones, encourage people to arm themselves with verbal weapons. Weapons provoke defenses, which get people to stick with their positions. Dis-arming means taking away weapons, which lowers defenses, which allows progress.)

Feedforward is a time-tested practice that replaces judgment with useful advice. It's experiential. You have to practice it to learn it and get its benefits. I recommend trying it now! Stick with it. It works.

“Slow down and enjoy life. It's not only the scenery you miss by going too fast—you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”
—Eddie Cantor