Feedback Timeliness

Every competent software engineering practitioner knows that short feedback loops are invaluable. As disciples of Kent Beck, we were taught early on that the sooner you realize that you have an issue, or that the API you’re working on is going to be hard to use or maintain, the lower the cost. This concept seems obvious, right?

However, when it comes to helping their teams grow, too often leaders default to providing the feedback at wrong times. That means that we do not maximize the chances of that feedback making a difference.

Examples of untimely feedback include:

  • Waiting so long it never happens: A director once told me about a team lead that messed something up. “Have you talked to him about it?” I inquired. “Nah, it’s been too long, it doesn’t matter.” Giving up means that effectively nothing was done to make sure the same mistake won’t happen again.
  • Providing feedback too soon: Say the team just finished handling a big crisis overnight, or that you just finished a big time-crunch blitz. Starting to talk about the root cause so it won’t be needed again is essential, but doing it straight as you’re wrapping up means people probably haven’t yet had the chance to unwind and clear their minds.
  • The delayed pat on the back: The right time to tell someone that you’re pleased with their accomplishment isn’t five months later in the yearly performance review. Just like getting a belated “Happy Birthday” a week after your birthday doesn’t have the same effect, you should strive to provide feedback faster, e.g., on your next weekly 1:1.
  • The detached feedback: the other side of the delayed-pat-on-the-back coin, is providing bad feedback so long after the fact that your examples have lost their sting. If the person no longer can recall the incident clearly, you significantly lower the chances of learning what really happened and how to prevent it.

The solution is quite straightforward: make sure to provide negative feedback on regularly scheduled 1:1s (unless we’re talking about an urgent matter). Also, go over wins on 1:1s to provide positive feedback and discuss opportunities to achieve similar results again, but make sure to celebrate the successes when they happen, regardless.

And most importantly, provide the feedback. Improvement won’t happen in a vacuum.