In praise of 360 feedback sessions

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At the most recent ThoughtWorks University term, at which I was a coach, we used 360 feedback sessions, both for internal feedback within the group of coaches as well as within the project teams of grads.  I found it to be a helpful complement to the teams’ regular agile retrospectives and ad-hoc one-on-one feedback (such as after each pairing session).
We did it like this:
  • Announce the time for the 360 session(s) at least a day in advance.
  • Divide randomly into small groups of four to six people.
  • Create an Ideaboardz instance for each group, with a category for each person (of course, you could use other digital or physical tools)
  • Have everyone post virtual stickies for the people in his or her group.
  • Have someone volunteer to go first.
  • That person reads aloud the stickies that he has received.
  • For each one, he can ask for clarification or ideas from the group to affirm a positive or suggest improvements.
  • Everyone goes in turn.
We coaches found it very helpful. The grads were initially less comfortable giving constructive/negative feedback to each other — a common complaint that we heard from grads was that the feedback from their peers was low quality (“Really like pairing with you!”) — but they occasionally received something useful, too.
Some benefits that I experienced and witnessed:
  • Having a small group of peers allows richer feedback, as teammates can provide more explanation, examples or elaboration.
  • It removes some of the awkwardness of one-on-one feedback.
  • Realtime, face-to-face feedback is better than email-solicited feedback.
  • It complements retrospective-style feedback, which is typically not focused on individual or personal feedback but on team and process feedback.
  • Negative feedback can be affirmed, “rounded out” and better contextualized by peers.
  • It tends to foster a more intimate, trusting team atmosphere.

A few words of caution: As with retrospectives, having managers or positionally superior people in the room can inhibit the quality of feedback. As coach, I tried to participate in one feedback session with four of the grads as “equal” (I had my own list of virtual post-its and shared in turn). But it was difficult for the grads to see me as a peer: Oftentimes, they would turn to me and express feedback about someone else who was sitting across the table (“I like how Joe asked questions while we were pairing.”). I of course politely but firmly told them to not talk to me but to the person to whom they were giving feedback. 🙂

Also, remember that sharing negatives in a 360 doesn’t necessarily mean everything negative you want to share. If you have a very personal issue, nothing says that you must share it in the 360 or that you can’t share it outside of the 360. As with agile retrospectives, the concept of safety is still important.

One thought on “In praise of 360 feedback sessions

  1. The circle format has not historically worked as well as another format. That format is everyone seeks out another person, those pairs get to share their thoughts with each other for 5 minutes and then one person finds a new partner. The one-on-one conversations worked much better than the circle format which later became known as the circle of death.

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