Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Fishing for Feedback

The ‘Freakonomics’ column in last Sunday’s Times recounted Anders Ericsson’s studies of the importance of practice and discipline in the development of expertise:

…Ericsson has noted that most doctors actually perform worse the longer they are out of medical school. Surgeons, however, are an exception. That's because they are constantly exposed to two key elements of deliberate practice: immediate feedback and specific goal-setting.

The same is not true for, say, a mammographer. When a doctor reads a mammogram, she doesn't know for certain if there is breast cancer or not. She will be able to know only weeks later, from a biopsy, or years later, when no cancer develops. Without meaningful feedback, a doctor's ability actually deteriorates over time.

What sort of feedback do we get on the effectiveness of our work? Other than the ego-boosting endorphin-soaked gratitude we receive while the participants file out, we rarely receive reasoned feedback – the kind that can help us determine what really works and what doesn’t.

In our old model as sub-contractors to consultants, we never really know what happens and, more importantly, what, if anything, we did to make it happen. But once we shift from selling events to delivering solutions, we stay involved after the event and become active players in implementing for results. Then we can more dispassionately enquire about impact and, better yet, make our own observations.

I have recently facilitated a series of small events for a small United Nations agency. Each event is, in a sense, a follow-up to the previous ones and I spend a significant amount of time in their offices between these events on design issues and other discussions. Earlier in this project, I had a small team on site for six weeks facilitating a shifting team of their people in the design of a strategy and operating model.

Having been involved in the nuts and bolts of their work, I now have the tools to assess the outcomes of my events and a sufficiently robust relationship to discuss successes and failures with the client.

So what feedback do I receive? The good news is that, unlike virtually every initiative that this agency undertakes, staff and executive enthusiasm for the projects we are involved in actually grows over time. The bad news is that the more concrete aspects of our outputs undergo radical surgery in the days and weeks following our work together.

I’m taking this feedback on board to beef up the focus aspects of our work. This ought to measurably improve the quality of our outcomes. So maybe it is good news after all.