This time last year I was in my office assembling a coat stand. It had been hanging around in its box for weeks after the old one had collapsed under the weight of our wet winter gear. The second floor, normally home to some 80-odd people, was empty bar a few colleagues working by the glow of the festive lights and the soundtrack of crowds of bargain hunters in one of Oxford’s main shopping streets.
It’s oh so quiet… so get creative
I’ve often worked over the festive period, holding the fort while most of my colleagues were off. I’ve never really minded it, either. It’s a period to get things done that have slipped down the list, and to get them done uninterrupted and at your own pace. Any meetings that do happen tend to be interesting, because there is more time to go into detail while a slightly jolly mood does wonders for creativity too.
Apart from mucking out pedestals, digital housekeeping and racing through to do lists, the slow period is also a brilliant one for connecting with a few people around you. Some of those colleagues sitting on their team’s island on their own will be relishing the peace and quiet. Others will feel uncomfortable or frankly bored without the stimulation of others. Both are likely to enjoy a well-timed chat.
… have a natter
I recall a very enlightening one several years ago with a colleague whom I’d worked with for several months. I didn’t understand his very specialist finance role at all well and he always seemed to be on the fringes of our lively team meetings. I simply asked him the question what was on his plate as I handed him a steaming mug of tea and a mince pie. He spent the next 40 minutes taking me through a number of things I had so far understood only the broadest of terms – also because our busy team meetings at the time did not accommodate such an in-depth explanation of his priorities.
This taught me a number of things: first of all, I finally grasped some very important financial aspects of our programme which I should have understood much sooner. Second, I could have asked him months earlier to sit down with me and talk me through it all. Third, my very introverted colleague turned out to be an ace at patiently explaining complex financial issues in layman’s terms, and I wondered about what our team was missing out on. Fourth, our team meetings were clearly in need of an overhaul.
… and reap the results for months to come
My chat with my finance colleague helped me a great deal in my own role over the next year; my new insights proved invaluable on several occasions. I was also able to ask him very specific questions, and he’d be able to cut to the chase in his answers, knowing I had much of the detail already. And I was also able to refer the right kind of questions from other people to him, and make sure people shared information with him which he really needed to know about. Going out and gathering information wasn’t his strong suit, you see. And yes, the team meetings underwent a major revamp, and turned into inclusive sessions where work actually got done and not simply discussed.
Over a mug of tea and a mince pie or two, our uninterrupted, impromptu catch-up turned into a structure both of us used well over the next year and which helped our work a great deal. I reckon the slow days between Christmas and New Year are excellent coat stand assembly time.
In a single week in October I received an email asking for feedback on a 2-mile bus journey into town, one from my bank asking asking feedback about the experience of paying in a check at a branch, another about the experience of booking onto a conference, and one about a £100 million commercial development being built 200 yards from my front door.
Which one do you think I spent my time on?
The value of feedback
Feedback can tell us how we are doing: it can tell us which products are going to be best sellers and which ones need development. Feedback can increase profits – personal or commercial. It can help us grow in our roles. We use it to make informed decisions.
Feedback: the word is everywhere.
The ubiquity of feedback notwithstanding, do we truly understand its value and use? For starters, learning to ask for and take feedback is not easy at all. As the examples above show, I want to be asked about things that matter to me, and I’d like to be asked precisely when those things matter to me. Getting that right is an art.
Unfortunately for the Oxford Bus Company I wasn’t overly excited about my uneventful 2-mile trip to the station because I’ve made that journey a thousand times, and could barely remember making it.
The point here is to choose the sample wisely and time the request well, so that the respondent can recall the experience clearly.
Asking for feedback sets expectations
What happens with my feedback once I click send? For me to be motivated to help make things better I need to see the difference my feedback is making. After all, I’m being asked to give some of that most valuable of commodities: my time. Show me the value of feedback, and not just to you, but to me as a customer too.
What will be different if I sent you my feedback?
Delivering on feedback
When supporting change programmes, I spend much time and energy making sure decision makers understand how important it is to ask for feedback at crucial times; to ask the right questions when they do, and above all, show plenty of evidence of where, when and how things changed as a result of getting the input from people.
Evidencing how feedback is making things better is a real motivator for people who are personally invested in the change. For you, this evidence can also help in arguing that you do listen and that everyone has a responsibility in the change process.
A golden rule here is not to ask questions about things you cannot (or will not) change. If feedback simply would not change matters, an entirely different and very honest conversation needs to be had instead.
Being on the receiving end of feedback
Receiving feedback can be synonymous to taking it on the chin. Asking for it means being committed to responding to it, including to comments you consider to be ill-informed or unfair. Other feedback might tap into vulnerabilities you already knew about, but were trying not to face up to. This can be painful, especially if it’s received in a formal way such as an appraisal or 360 degree feedback.
Be prepared for the unexpected and the painful, and perhaps consider when the best time is for you to ask for feedback, if you feel that you’re not in the most robust of mental shapes.
The good stuff
Let’s not forget positive feedback… and the fact that even disgruntled customers can share some constructively, simply because they want to help make things better and consider you to be approachable and receptive.
Finally: you don’t have to take all feedback to heart. You may be developing a product which isn’t actually aimed at the respondent. Or perhaps you received some feedback about your performance knowing it’s about an incident which has since been addressed. A respondent’s taste in logos could simply not match that of an important majority – and that’s OK too.
While feedback is crucial to minimising blind spots and making things better, you’re certainly allowed to exercise judgment. The feedback information you elicited is yours to conscientiously use as you need to.