My product management toolkit (30): giving and receiving feedback

I’ve got many, many flaws. Taking things personally is one of them … On one hand, I’m always going to ‘expose’ myself to feedback by trying, challenging and simply ‘doing’, expecting to be challenged and to receive feedback. On the other hand, however, every time that I do receive feedback – direct or indirect – I need to make sure I pause and listen carefully, taking the feedback in fully first.

i-dont-always-take-things-personally-oh-wait-yes-i-do.jpg

 

For example, the other day I found myself asking “why” a lot in a discussion about a customer problem and a colleague kept saying “let’s stop overcomplicating things, let’s just keep things simple.” Guess what I felt? I took it personally and wondered why she wasn’t as keen as I was to explore the problem in a bit more detail …

It made me realise again that feedback is crucial, and particularly for us as product managers:

  • We’re likely to give plenty of feedback.
  • And we’re likely to receive a whole lot of it too.

Giving feedback

As a product manager, I often find myself giving feedback to others, either about a behaviour or something that they’ve produced – for example:

  • A presentation, either in the making or delivered
  • A product thought, idea or prototype
  • One of my product managers failing to collaborate effectively with their product team members
  • Feeding back to colleagues in the senior leadership team about their ideas or decisions

When giving feedback, I believe it’s important to:

  • Have a think about what you’re going to say first – Many a time I’ve made the mistake where I’d just blurt out feedback in the moment. This can be ok when interacting with certain people, especially if you’re in a trusted relationship with them. However, the risk with this ‘in the moment’ approach is that your feedback might not be well thought through or constructive … Simply writing down a few bullet points can help to think through the essence of the feedback and how to best get that across.
  • It’s about the person’s behaviour, not about the person – Another common pitfall can be to focus your feedback on a person instead of their behaviour. Let’s, for instance, think of a scenario where you’ve observed a colleague being late a few times. Instead of saying “Ellen, why are you always so late?”, which makes it all about Ellen as a person, you could ask: “Ellen, I’ve noticed you being late for meetings over the last two weeks, do you mind if we have a chat about why that is?”
  • Be specific and timely when describing the behaviour – I strongly suggest avoiding sweeping statements or being very black and white when giving feedback. For example, compare these two examples: “Paul, your product ideas haven’t been clear” versus “Paul, when you suggested ideas for a new product feature last week, I missed detail about what the feature would entail and the assumed customer value the feature would bring.” In the latter example, the feedback provided is specific and offers a good starting point for conversation. Asking for permission in the form of “May I give you feedback?” can also be a friendly way to start the conversation.
  • Describe the (emotional) impact the behaviour had on you – When making your feedback specific, it helps to describe the impact the person’s behaviour has had on you. I think it’s important to steer clear of statements like “Richard, your lack of decision making in the last prioritisation conversation was frustrating for lots of people in the team” – which feels very broad brush and not fair on the recipient of your feedback since he/she won’t be able to clarify with the people you claim to be speaking on behalf of. Instead, I suggest saying something along the lines of “Richard,  your lack of decision making in the last prioritisation conversation made me feel directionless, as I don’t know how to best proceed from here.”
  • Consider the “S-B-I” framework – In essence, I strongly recommend looking at the “Situation, Behaviour, Impact” (‘S-B-I’) framework, as it offers a nice way of framing the feedback that you’re giving (see Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – Situation, Behaviour, Impact framework – Taken from: https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/hr-pipeline-a-quick-win-to-improve-your-talent-development-process/

Receiving feedback

Going back to my earlier admission about take things personally, the way in which I receive feedback is critical for me. I’ve found that it can be easy to feel completely floored by the feedback received, instead of treating the feedback as an opportunity to learn and improve. Without saying that I find receiving feedback easy, I’ve learned to (pro) actively ask for feedback and guidance.

When receiving feedback, I believe it’s important to:

  • Listen with the intent to understand, not to respond – If you’re anything like me, i.e. not super comfortable with asking people for feedback, your initial response might well be to act defensively and respond to the criticism. In the great book “Radical Candor”, author Kim Scott urges us not to do that; don’t start criticising the criticism! Instead, she suggests saying something like “So what I hear you saying is …”
  • Ask for specifics – Try to understand when you displayed certain behaviours, what you could have done or said differently and why. To me, the whole point of asking for feedback is that you’ll be able to learn from the feedback received. When you receive and digest the feedback, you can decide to either to not act on it or to put your learnings into practice. Either way, it’s imperative that the feedback is specific, so that you can make a well informed decision on whether to act on it.
  • Express appreciation for the feedback and give yourself time to process – If you did get feedback, the next important thing is to follow up and show that you really welcomed the feedback. You don’t even need to respond straight away and mention the things that you’re going to do to implement the feedback. It’s perfectly fine to say “Thank you so much for your feedback. Let me take it away and reflect on it.” If you agree with what was said, you should make a change as soon as possible. If the necessary change will take time, do something visible to show you’re trying.

Main learning point: Giving or receiving feedback isn’t easy, and there’s no silver bullet available to make it any easier. However, tools like the “Situation, Behaviour, Impact” framework can help us to better frame the feedback that we’re giving. And when it comes to receiving feedback, I’ve found “listening” to be the most powerful tool of all.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://marcabraham.com/2017/08/17/book-review-radical-candor/
  2. https://marcabraham.com/2018/02/18/my-product-management-toolkit-26-pause-and-listen/
  3. https://getlighthouse.com/blog/give-constructive-feedback-motivate-improve/
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oRKr5xA9N0
  5. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/situation-behavior-impact-feedback.htm
  6. https://www.fastcompany.com/3019036/simple-direct-honest-personal-and-blunt-how-the-5-word-performance-review-works-wonde
  7. https://www.inc.com/the-muse/how-to-give-constructive-criticism-employees-managers-useful-feedback.html

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