Learning and Feedback

by Geof Lory

In my last article I referenced a protocol to create a learning environment and provide structure to the review process. This protocol, called the PerfectionGame, is extremely effective at creating a positive environment and forward focus for improvement.

This protocol is part of a larger set of team protocols presented in the book Software for your Head by Jim and Michele McCarthy. Jim and Michele, through their company, McCarthy Technologies, have worked with software development and management teams for many years. They guide weeklong Team Boot Camps, and the protocols presented in their book are practices and lessons learned from their work with hundreds of such teams.

I particularly enjoy the PerfectionGame because it directly addresses the four key elements necessary for optimal learning in a team environment. To recap from the previous article, these are:
  1. Create a safe environment for bringing your best to the team
  2. Provide a familiar and shared structure for the feedback
  3. Keep the learning forward focused
  4. Be specific and timely
In addition to setting the stage for optimal learning by creating the above conditions, this protocol has the added value of dramatically increasing the team's overall alignment around their goals and objectives while fostering an environment of creative collaboration. For any team, alignment and collaboration is extremely valuable, however in software development teams, especially teams trying to grow their agile methods, missing these elements is the kiss of death.

To learn the PerfectionGame protocol I highly recommend you start by actually playing the PerfectionGame to become familiar with the rules and structure. Once the rules are understood, you and your teammates will then be able to apply the protocol as desired to your everyday interactions for critical feedback and honest, creative and safe input.

Here's how the PerfectionGame works.
  1. Players start by sitting in a circle so all can see each other.

  2. Each person in the circle names a task or action that he believes to be simple and that he is willing to perform throughout the game - for example, "Humphrey Bogart imitation," "juggling," or "flipping a coin."

  3. The first player performs their task named in step 2 using the following structure:

    1. The first player announces "Okay, I'm starting now." Everything the player does after this point is subject to perfecting.

    2. The player performs his task.

    3. The player says, "I'm done." Everything up to but not including this statement is subject to perfecting.

  4. The remaining players/observers then provide feedback through the following process.

    1. "On a scale of 1-10 (where 10 is a perfect performance of the task), I rate your performance a ____."

    2. " I give it a ___ because ..." Here the person providing the feedback states specifically what they liked about the performance that earned it the score they gave instead of a 0. Be especially careful to avoid stating anything that was wrong or what they didn't like about the performance.

    3. "In order for me to give you a 10 you would have to �." Here the feedback is focused on what would need to be true in their next performance for them to receive a 10 from that feedback provider.

  5. After each observer has provided feedback, steps 3 and 4 are repeated two more times. The player uses the feedback expressed by the various observers to modify each performance.

As a game this can be a lot of fun. I use it in my training at times when teams need some guidance on moving forward through improvement rather than focusing on what isn't working. There is a strong inclination to provide feedback to the performer by stating what was not done well rather than what could have been done. The difference sounds trivial, but using this protocol opens the performer to accepting the feedback with the intention of improving rather than defending their performance.

Now, how do you take this from a game to everyday practice to provide value to teams and their outputs, processes and performances? The key parts of the protocol lie in the deliberate delivery of the three points of feedback in step 4. By integrating these three statements into how team members provide feedback, you will quickly create an environment that is safe and structured, and feedback that is forward focused, specific and timely.

Shortly after introducing this protocol to a project team, I sent out an email to the team documenting the process for initiating and approving change requests and asked for their feedback. Using the newly learned protocol I got a reply from one of the project managers in the following format:

I rate your documentation of the change process a 7.
I liked that you were specific about the steps and levels of approval required. I also like the form you provided.
For this document to get a 10 from me I would like to have a graphical flow of the steps and I would like the form moved to the production template library.
Thanks for taking the time to document,

How perfect is that? Not only were his ideas good, I now knew exactly what I needed to do to "perfect" my deliverable. I have used this protocol on anything that is worth incrementally improving through successive iterations. Code reviews, design reviews, UI reviews, training reviews, even meetings. I once stopped a meeting that was going nowhere and we used the protocol on the meeting itself. Once everyone had expressed what would need to be true for the meeting to "get a 10" we got on with it and had a productive meeting.

Use of the PerfectionGame will help eliminate the tendency of pure negation, minimize the interpersonal disturbances in sensitive discussions, emphasize the desirable "results to date" with respect to the object/action being perfected, provide equal, specific creative contributions from all participants, and solicit critical thinking about improving to perfection.

And best of all, it can be used to provide feedback to less than open minded teenage girls when their parents "don't understand." It has been effective in giving feedback to my daughters on how they can do the best possible job of cleaning their rooms. They now know exactly what it takes to get a 10 from me.

Try it; I think you will enjoy it.

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