Viewpoint: Feedback, ‘Feedforward’ and Frequency for 21st Century Performance Management

By Christopher D. Lee June 12, 2018
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​The much-maligned performance review was a stalwart of 20th century management and earned its poor reputation by being retrospective, regressive and more focused on documentation than on management. The practice was justified by including the disclaimer that it worked only in conjunction with ongoing feedback. However, the combination of backward orientation, subjective ratings, reluctant managers and design failures ensured ineffectiveness. Today, scores of enlightened major corporations have abandoned the practice and are experimenting with alternatives that meet the needs of the information age.

Repackaging performance management, reviews, appraisals, evaluations and development has been tried and has failed, so a radical departure now seems to be the only option left. To begin, a new premise is required. For the 21st century, the purpose of such efforts is performance improvement. With a more fitting purpose, new models and methods are easier to conceive and implement. 

Next, there are at least three actions needed to power 21st century performance management:

  • Feedback is a necessary and positive element because it provides both assessment and accountability. All employees need to know where they are. Yet they also need to know where they are going.
  • "Feedforward" is guidance, direction, description and, most importantly, forecast. It establishes goals and provides the necessary support and encouragement for reaching the next level of performance.
  • While improvement is the why, and feedback and feedforward are the what, the how comes from the proven technique of frequent coaching.

Just as the goal of improvement is a seismic shift away from documenting past performance, coaching is leaps and bounds above supervision. One of the defining characteristics of coaching is the frequency in which performance information is exchanged. Coaches help individuals perform better. They establish relationships with performers, give them critical feedback and direction, encourage their hearts and develop their minds. A not totally undeserved stereotype of supervision is its often-myopic focus on the accomplishment of tasks. Coaching acknowledges and leverages the understanding that effective leaders manage both the performer and the person. 

The expectation of ongoing interaction and constant recalibration is a bit of a quality-assurance mechanism for performance. In modern approaches, feedback is less of an accountability tool and more of a diagnostic one. Its information becomes input into the next real-time adjustment that is made to meet goals and increase productivity, instead of being a documented after-action report. The frequency inherent to coaching is invaluable.

Traditional appraisals fall short of their promise because they do not forecast or prepare an employee for the future. If feedback is constructive and informs you where there were missteps, then appraisals just are not set up to be robust conversations about the future. Even if they were set up to discuss improvement, who would be willing or in the mood to listen after receiving a less-than-stellar rating—especially when ratings have an immediate impact upon one's livelihood or career prospects?

Defining Terms

We're familiar with the concept of feedback: giving a constructive review of the highs and lows of past performance.

Feedforward paints a picture of an idealized future state and puts a plan into action to attain it. In sports a coach might say, "Keep your eye on the ball when [this] or [that] happens." A play's director might enjoin the lead actor to smile more to draw in the audience. A supervisor might tell a new hire that asking good questions is a sign of growth, not weakness, and to do so more often. In short, feedforward gives advice, support and encouragement in addition to guidance and direction. It is designed to improve performance.  

Frequency enables effective tracking, calibration, adjustment and optimization and creates the space for the prevention of problems, the limiting of missteps and immediate intervention by supervisors when things get off course. Moreover, frequency is also about accountability. A jogging buddy, a friend joining you on a diet, or a senior co-worker who checks in periodically to make sure you are doing well are examples of how frequent interaction with others helps you stay focused. 

Going Forward

Together, feedback, feedforward and frequency create a blueprint for 21st century performance management. The focus is on improvement. The fast pace of business, increasing global competition, constant innovation and change, and Millennials' tendency to demand immediate and ongoing feedback are but a few factors that compel us to think, act and manage differently. We need new management models to harness this challenging and dynamic environment; in this era, the assignment of questionable ratings is as outdated as the typewriter.

Performance management of the future is sure to be based upon feedback, feedforward and frequency. As the likes of Accenture, Deloitte, GE, Adobe, Google and others explore different methodologies, not surprisingly they share common elements with this emerging model. Most of the new approaches have periodic (frequency) opportunities to discuss (feedback) performance. These one-on-one meetings, check-in sessions, insights―or connects, as they are often called―have the expressed purpose of being two-way discussions about work without a ratings and retrospective overlay. These are positive developments. 

Yet, to be truly innovative, new performance management models must also include feedforward and the interaction of the three elements. This redefinition of the goal of performance management—improvement—will be the right foundation upon which future performance conversations between employees and those who help them achieve their productivity goals will be held. 

Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is the author of three books, including 2006's Performance Conversations: An Alternative to Appraisal (Fenestra Books, 2006). His forthcoming book introduces an innovative model and methodology that replaces the need for traditional appraisals. He can be reached at chris@performanceconversations.com.

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