Or more accurately, the inadequacy of the after-course evaluation process to gather meaningful and actionable feedback.
I facilitated three sessions at Agile2009 in August. It was a lot of fun, but I found something deeply unsatisfying and frustrating about the Agile2009 feedback process. This is not something specific to Agile2009, it is a fault of the feedback system we have become accustomed to and, it seems, have never stopped to question. I guess I have high expectations of the Agile conference leading the way in new thought, rather than following tired, old patterns that are clearly broken. Too bad that has not yet occurred — but here’s hoping.
In a nutshell the feedback process works like this: The session ends. Participants are given a form, just as they are ready to leave the room to drink coffee, eat lunch or play the networking game. On the form they are expected to check some boxes on a 1-5 scale against some vague and ambiguous criteria. They are expected to add comments. Most do the former, few do the latter (fewer do the latter in a way that is both legible or meaningful). The forms are anonymous. There is no space for a follow up conversation.
The value of these forms to me as a presenter (I cannot speak for others) is almost zero. Participants often give diametrically opposed feedback, so it is extremely difficult to use it in a constructive way. Different sessions suit different personalities, and there is no way to make everyone happy. I also dislike that the feedback is anonymous as it flies in the face of Agile values such as trust, courage and transparency.
I am sure there are many who can explain from a psychological or systems perspective why this process is so broken and so lacking in value, and I am hoping someone will do so by way of a comment. I’m looking at it here in a purely personal way, i.e. how it affects me. I have always felt that such a feedback mechanism not only adds no value, but is actually destructive.
When I read these anonymous feedback forms (written under duress, and mostly as an act of compliance) I have one of two reactions:
- I am hurt by the criticism. I feel deflated and wounded. I feel misunderstood
- My ego is boosted, and I feel flushed with pride. I want to brag.
It is not constructive to dwell in either of these places, and yet this is where I automatically go. Clearly, I can work on this, and I do, but I reckon that a more meaningful feedback process would help dissolve the two extremes and create a better space for both giving and receiving feedback.
When someone takes the time, in a thoughtful and reflective way to offer me feedback, either in person or in written form, in a transparent way (i.e. not anonymous) I find I have feedback that I can hear, that I can consider, that I can take action on.
These days when I teach CSM courses, or other trainings I don’t hand out feedback forms. Instead I use a process of continuous reflection, which is done through rich dialog. Occasionally I have asked for feedback in the form of a drawing, or a haiku. Such mediums tap a different part of the brain —or perhaps not the brain at all— and help people get away from stating the obvious. I heard of one Scrum trainer who hands out blank sheets of paper at the end of the training. This is a great improvement, but the participants are still under pressure to write something meaningful in a very short time-frame.
I continue to consider and to search for new ways of gathering meaningful feedback. I am fairly sure the situation can be improved by getting rid of the anonymity aspect, making the feedback form optional, and allowing participants to take the form away and complete in their own time.