Designing Workshops: Feedback

A real risk when running a workshop is the emergence of ‘groupthink’.

Groupthink is:

…a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimise conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting views, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.

You might read those words and expect people are consciously aware of the emergence of potential conflict amongst the participant group and then, also consciously, try to steer conversations away from ‘danger zones’. In the moment, the phenomenon of groupthink is nearly impossible to detect. The group smoothly dodges ‘difficult’ conversations and makes decisions to maintain social harmony.

That feeling of working in harmony is incredibly attractive and energising. The mood of the room lightens, and it feels like genuine progress. It can feel like ‘we did it!’ As I said, it’s hard to know if that feeling is progress or delusion.

The potential impact of groupthink is poor decision-making. The lack of challenge means ideas aren’t critically evaluated. Alternatives are never suggested. The avoiding of in-depth inspection of the ideas and plans might lead to disastrous consequences much later – when resources are committed, and Rubicons crossed.

As facilitators and designers of workshops, we have a responsibility to overcome ‘groupthink’. It’s why so many of these posts highlight the importance of ‘psychological safety’. We need to create environments where people can challenge ideas without endangering social harmony, where groupthink doesn’t survive.

Normalising the process of criticising an idea – of giving feedback to the concept, is another way we can create psychological safety.

Capturing feedback

Feedback is often delivered verbally. It’s something somebody says to another person (or group of people). This intangibility creates several problems.

One problem is that it damages the group’s sense of psychological safety. In that situation, it doesn’t look or feel like the feedback is for the idea. It feels like it’s being directed at the person.

A piece of feedback is an idea. It’s a reaction to another idea. Making ideas into explicit and tangible forms is a core principle for creating psychological safety.

Feedback, like the object of the feedback, needs to be represented in some explicit form. It needs to be written down – on paper, on a whiteboard, in a virtual workspace, etc. Somewhere it can be perceived as a separate ‘thing’ to the people involved.

I strongly recommend that feedback is always captured by someone in a tangible way.

Methods of giving feedback

There are various ways you can give feedback to work. Three popular methods are:

  • Direct feedback
  • Why-It-Won’t-Work
  • Four quadrants

Direct Feedback

The flow for direct feedback is the audience simply provides their feedback to the team presenting the work. The presenting team captures what was said.

To maintain psychological safety, and ensure fidelity of the feedback is maintained, the captured feedback is visible to the audience.

As I said above, this is the ‘least safe’ form of feedback. The other issue is that it can lead to the presenting team defending their work and getting into full group problem-solving.

There absolutely is a time when a broad group discussion is the right way to solve a problem. However, that time needs to be carefully orchestrated and planned for. It is not something you want to emerge organically as a surprise.

Why-It-Won’t-Work

With Why-It-Won’t-Work, the responsibility for capturing the feedback sits with the audience. Each participant in the audience has three stacks of Post-it notes. Each stack is a different colour. Generally, the colours are:

  • Green: for ideas that the group likes
  • Red: for ideas that the group does not like
  • Yellow: for ideas that sit between those two extremes

The instruction for the audience is to capture their feedback onto an appropriate Post-it as they hear each team sharing their work.

The key message in setting up this technique is that the person writing the Post-it needs to make sure the feedback stands alone. They won’t be there to represent their thoughts. There won’t be an opportunity to defend or further explain what they wrote.

Once all the teams have shared, the participants are invited to put their Post-it note feedback onto the ideas for which the feedback is directed.

The groupings of colour will indicate how the group feels about various ideas. A significant clump of green shows an idea the group is enthusiastic about. A big cluster of red suggests an idea that needs work.

Furthermore, the commentary captured on the Post-it notes guides the team carrying the work forward as to how the work needs to change.

Feedback Capture Grid

A variation on Why-It-Won’t-Work is the Stanford Feedback Capture Grid. It uses four sections for feedback:

  • Ideas I heard that I loved
  • Ideas I heard that need to change
  • Questions I have about the work
  • New ideas I have for the team

The mechanics of this process are similar, but the tone is slightly different.

Ideas that I loved is equivalent to the green Post-its. The ideas that need to change is a slightly ‘softer’ way of using the yellow/red Post-its from Why-It-Won’t-Work.

“Questions I have about the work” is also equivalent to the yellow Post-it notes. New ideas are simply that – I’ve heard your idea, and I have a way of building on it.

Both this technique and Why-It-Won’t-Work, engage the audience as co-creators of the work a team is presenting. They establish a dynamic that the work is ‘work-in-progress’ and we need your help to make it better.

Processing Feedback

Whichever method you choose to gather it, the next step for a team is to process the feedback their work has received.

There is a simple process you can use to do this.

The first step is optional – cluster the feedback into themes. This is helpful if you have a lot of feedback (which you might get if you use Why-It-Won’t-Work or the Feedback Capture Grid). You may also find it useful to divide each theme into sub-themes, or possibly positions/arguments. For example, you might have a theme of ‘the language needs to be more customer-friendly’ and then have several ways you could achieve that.

If you don’t have a lot of feedback, or maybe you don’t have the inclination, you can skip this step.

The next step is to work through the feedback. You can do this either by theme or by specific item of feedback. With each item, you have a decision to make. You can either:

Incorporate the feedback into the work

or

Not incorporate the feedback.

If you choose to ‘incorporate the feedback’, this means looking at the work and updating it in some way to honour that feedback.

The alternative is to not incorporate the feedback. If you choose this option, make sure you capture (or at least understand) why you didn’t include it.

The critical thing here is that you are making a choice. Do we update our work and apply the feedback or do we throw the feedback away?

You keep doing this until all the feedback has been ‘processed’. Although this all seems obvious, teams will often skim the feedback and develop a summary of it. This shortcut allows for cognitive biases, including groupthink, to arise within the team.

Closing thoughts

The four techniques I’ve described in this series:

  • Parallel Work
  • Iteration
  • Sharing
  • Feedback

Are foundational elements for collaborative design. Collectively, they focus participants on the work. They make that work and its evolution the primary measure of progress. When used well, they can shift a group of people from behaving like tribal factions to engaged corporate citizens trying to solve their common problem.

Using assignments to guide work

Designing Workshops: Sharing Work