The success of a learning organization lies in a feedback-friendly culture

Much is said of the trending “Agile manifesto”, “Scrum framework” and the “Sociocracy” system of governance in the context of organizational development and management, and the spotlight is often placed on the various principles and practices which organizations adopt under these methodologies in efforts to build a resilient and adaptive organization. Titansoft has been a practitioner of Agile, Scrum and Sociocracy practices for a few years, and we have come to realise the common thread among these methodologies, that is – feedback. As we explore new ways of working and adopt new practices, our organisational culture has gradually evolved to become one that is feedback-friendly, and supportive of our motto, to Never Stop Improving.

The essence of feedback

“Feedback” comes from a combination of verb “feed” and the adverb “back”. The verb “feed” is of Germanic origin, and the Old English fedan means “to nourish, give food to, sustain, foster”. The adverb “back” means “to or toward the rear or the original starting place; in the past; behind in position, “literally or figuratively, from the Old English bæc. The meaning of feedback that we encounter regularly today, “the transmission of evaluative or corrective information about an action, event, or process to the original or controlling source” is a relatively modern one that was adopted by the field of Psychology in the 1940s before becoming part of regular use.

The word feedback, thus, essentially revolves around making intended corrective actions to better the current state, and it appears in various forms within the methodologies of “Agile”, “Scrum” and “Sociocracy”. Learning is at the heart of feedback, and in turn, feedback forms the backbone of a learning organization – generally defined by Peter Senge as a group of people working together collectively to enhance their capabilities to create valuable results. 

Feedback, as a tool for facilitating improvements and advancements within business organisations, has been found to boosts creativity, propels trust, improves job satisfaction and drives motivation in individuals, and on a higher level, aligns individual and team performance with the overall objectives and missions of the organisation.

The Importance of a feedback-friendly culture

Edgar Schein’s definition of organizational culture defines it as a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

A feedback-friendly organizational culture hence, refers to organisational practices in a safe environment where the importance of constructive, quality feedback is emphasised, and members are encouraged and supported to share, accept and use feedback. In the long-run, this ensures that mistakes are corrected, good performance is reinforced and competency levels are gradually increased. An emerging trend of research into contemporary organisational behaviour has yielded much evidence which suggests substantial positives to a feedback-friendly culture, including employee behavioural modifications which ultimately increases organizational growth opportunities and efficiency.

Cultivating a feedback-friendly culture

It has been proposed by Baker, Perreault, Reid, & Blanchard (2013) that a feedback-friendly culture is supported by three principal elements, the promotion of the learning continuum, fostering of a trusting environment, and the endorsement of authentic dialogue.

The learning continuum

A feedback-friendly culture often goes hand in hand with a mindset of learning. A learning continuum is a structure in place which supports and facilitates the exchanging of feedback and taking action based on feedback. It is about proactive individual learning supported within a safe and trusting environment.

An example of a formal feedback process would be the regular employee evaluation found in most organisations. Typically conducted once yearly, it is characterised by inadequate, irrelevant or unhelpful feedback. But what we have done in Titansoft, is to take aspects of the 360-degree feedback tool and transform the traditionally one-way process into a collaborative effort towards improvement, with a combination of salary and job grade transparency, and a self-initiated promotion panel which takes place every 6 months.

  • For our developers, the requirements of each job grade and their respective salary are made transparent so individuals would know where they stand, how far away they are from the next grade and exactly what areas they should work on improving to reach the next level.
  • In contrast to traditional promotion process where the onus is on managers to select members subjectively for promotion, our promotion round for is open for all – developers can proactively apply to take part whenever they feel ready.
  • It consists of a panel of members, including fellow team members, stakeholders such as the product owner and manager, and human resources who serve as check and balance.
  • Promotion results are based on consensus voting, and all panel members must agree to the results collectively for the promotion to be deemed successful.
  • Regardless of the result, managers will collect feedback on candidates’ areas of success and improvements from each panel member to be shared with the candidate and these feedback will be reviewed again during the next round to ensure progress of the candidate over time.

In this way, the promotion process becomes a tool for employees to proactively seek and act on feedback, helping to increase individual motivation levels. This creates a learning environment within Titansoft where employees work collaboratively in parallel to, instead of compete against each other as they advance in their career. Even the promotion panel process itself is improved upon with each iteration, as members who have taken part during each round are invited to a post-mortem discussion dissecting areas of improvements to be further enhanced upon for the next round.

A safe and trusting environment

A safe and trusting environment is paramount to the success of a feedback-friendly culture. Within a safe environment, employees feel free to try new things and take risks which facilitate learning without fear of negative consequences to their career advancement, or as we call it, “Fail Fast, Fail Forward, Fail Often”.

A trusting relationship is established when there is honest, timely, unambiguous and reciprocal communication throughout the organisation.  Apart from formal feedback, the characteristics of informal feedback – continuous, unprompted, and in-the-moment – makes it even more suitable for the maintenance of a trusting environment.

Within each of our team is a working agreement laying out ground rules guiding behaviours of interaction between members, including ways of communication, working, decision making and supporting of each other. It can be a long-term commitment concerning how the team’s members would work together on a daily basis, or an ad-hoc contract for a specific session of team retrospective meeting. This set of agreed-upon expectations and behaviours serve to build a safe and trusting working environment within the team, and helps in reinforcing positive behaviours such as being solutions-focused rather than blame-focused, allowing members the freedom to explore new ideas.

Endorsement of authentic dialogue

Dialogue requires the presence of open communication channels throughout the organisation, allowing for feedback to be multi-dimensional, flowing top-down, bottom-up, and horizontally, essentially describing the organisation’s communications on a macro level. As such, it can be viewed as a goal that should be supported by the management and integrated into the organisation’s practices.

These communication channels on a higher level, can be in the form of town hall meetings which allows vertical connection between employees and the upper management, such as our “Ask GM Anything” sessions during monthly company-wide parties where everyone is invited to mingle with food and drinks, and with plenty of opportunities for cross-team interactions. Under a casual setting, everyone is free to ask any questions, be it about business-related decision making or even relating to personal life, or bring up suggestions and feedback to people policies.

Openly inviting feedback and giving opportunities for employees to bring up concerns is especially important following the announcement of important company-related decisions. It is a chance to demonstrate management’s support of multi-lateral dialogue, and is something we practice at Titansoft. An example is with our annual salary benchmarking exercise – during which the entire process of decision-making, current context and underlying factors taken into consideration are made transparent to employees during a company-wide session, where feedback and thoughts are invited to be shared openly.

The formation of a feedback-friendly culture takes both top-down and bottoms-up approaches, but starts with the defining of organisational values and management setting the tone in endorsement of establishing a learning continuum, fostering of a trusting environment, and of promoting authentic dialogue. This trickles down to processes and practices, eventually influencing the informal ways of working and becomes part of the pattern of basic assumptions and behaviour shared by everyone within the organisation.

References:

A. C., & SPREITZER, G. M. (2009). Trust, Connectivity, and Thriving: Implications for Innovative Behaviors at Work. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 43(3). doi:10.1002

Baker, A., Perreault, D., Reid, A., & Blanchard, C. M. (2013). Feedback and organizations: Feedback is good, feedback-friendly culture is better. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 54(4), 260-268. doi:10.1037/a0034691

Editors of Merriam-Webster. (2018, April 3). The History of Feedback. The Merriam-Webster.Com Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/the-history-of-feedback

Harper, D. (2006, March 15). Back. Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/back

Harper, D. (2011, November 18). Feed. Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/feed

Henderson, M., Phillips, M., Ryan, T., Boud, D., Dawson, P., Molloy, E., & Mahoney, P. (2019). Conditions that enable effective feedback. Higher Education Research & Development, 38(7), 1401–1416. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2019.1657807

Li, A. N., & Tan, H. H. (2013). What happens when you trust your supervisor? Mediators of individual performance in trust relationships. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 34, 407–425. doi:10.1002/job.1812

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Feedback. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feedback

Mulder, R. H. (2013). Exploring feedback incidents, their characteristics and the informal learning activities that emanate from them. European Journal of Training and Development, 37(1), 49-71. doi:10.1108/03090591311293284

Schein, E. H. (1984). Coming to a new awareness of organizational culture. Sloan Management Review,
25, 3–16.

Yadav, S., & Agarwal, V. (2016). Benefits and barriers of learning organization and its five discipline. IOSR Journal of Business and Management (IOSR-JBM), 18(12), 18–24. 

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