Marshall Goldsmith: The ‘Feed-Forward’ Exercise

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Looking for a better way to help your people grow? Try this.

If you’ve endured countless presentations over the years where speakers share slide after slide—with no interaction from participants—we have a great exercise for you to try. It is positive, simple, focused and fast. It breaks up the pattern of one-way communication. Participants love it. They get up and move around. They learn a lot about themselves and their colleagues. More importantly,  it helps CEOs and executives be great role models for personal learning and development.

Over the past three decades, I (MG) have observed over one million leaders participate in the FeedForward exercise. Participants are each asked to play two roles. In one, they are asked to provide FeedForward—to give someone else suggestions for the future and help as much as they can. In the second, they are asked to accept FeedForward—or listen to suggestions for the future and learn as much as they can. The exercise typically lasts 10 to 15 minutes, and the average participant has six to seven dialogue sessions.

Fun with Feedback

In the exercise, participants:

  • Pick one behavior that they would like to change, such as, “I want to be a better listener.” (If they cannot think of one thing, suggest they work on humility.)
  • Share this behavior with randomly selected fellow participants.
  • Ask for FeedForward—one or two suggestions to achieve a positive change in their selected behavior—with no feedback about the past.
  • Listen attentively to the suggestions and take notes—without commenting.
  • Just say, “Thank you!” after receiving suggestions.
  • Ask the other person what they would like to change.
  • Provide FeedForward—suggestions aimed at helping the other person change.
  • Find another participant and keep repeating the process until the exercise stops.

When the exercise is finished, I ask participants to use one word to complete the sentence, “This exercise was…” The words provided are almost always positive, such as “great,” “useful” or “helpful.” One of the most common is “fun!”

Positively Productive

We then ask why this exercise is so useful; participants’ answers are illuminating.

  1. “We can change the future. We can’t change the past.”
  2. “It can be more productive to help people learn to be ‘right,’ than prove they were ‘wrong.’”
  3. “FeedForward can come from anyone. We can learn a lot from people we don’t know.”
  4. “People do not take FeedForward as personally as feedback.”
  5. “Face it! Most of us hate getting negative feedback, and we don’t like to give it.”
  6. “FeedForward can cover almost all of the same ‘material’ as feedback.”
  7. “FeedForward tends to be much faster and more efficient than feedback.”
  8. “FeedForward can be a useful tool to apply when talking with people who have more power than you.”
  9. “People tend to listen more attentively to FeedForward than feedback—because they cannot become defensive.”
  10. “No one judges ideas, they just say, ‘Thank you!’”

In summary, we’re not suggesting that leaders should never give feedback. Our intent is to show how FeedForward can be a great alternative to feedback in a developmental interaction. Aside from its effectiveness and efficiency, FeedForward makes life more enjoyable. When managers are asked how they felt the last time they received feedback, their most common responses are very negative. When managers are asked how they felt after receiving FeedForward, they reply that FeedForward was not only useful, it was also fun.

As a CEO, you want every leader in your organization to focus on developing themselves. This exercise provides a way for you, and them, to do it together.


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