Open Feedback Circle (OFC)
Unlock a Feedback Culture
There’s no better trust-building exercise for your team than sitting around a circle and sharing what you like and dislike about each other's work. Truly. Giving and receiving feedback takes vulnerability, and vulnerability cultivates trust.
My team met once a month, sat around a table, and shared feedback with each other in front of our other teammates. This gathering took feedback exchange from being a biannual activity we dreaded to a monthly ritual we looked forward to. Over time, the quality of our work improved and the quality of our feedback improved.
I present to you: the open feedback circle.
How it Works
Step 1: Prepare Self-Review
Start a timer (5 minutes should do) and ask participants to work on a self-review.
The self-review provides an opportunity for participants to periodically reflect on their performance. Because my team’s performance reviews centered around our company’s cultural values, we structured the self-review around those same values. We created a table for each participant, with each row being a cultural value, and each column, a self-review date. We color-coded our evaluation scores to make it easy to visualize our improvement over time.
Example, with contrived company cultural values:
It’s up to your team to choose a self-review format, but I’d recommend keeping it aligned with performance reviews.
Step 2: Share Self-Review
Each individual takes turns sharing their self-review, highlighting areas of excellence and areas of improvement. Teammates should not respond to the self-review as it’s being revealed, their only job is to listen.
Step 1 is an exercise for the participant’s benefit. The value lies in reflection, not in the final evaluation. This step — sharing the self-review — is for the self-reviewer and her team. Sharing a self-review is a show of trust. Participants don’t need to share all the details of their contemplation in step 1. They only need to share what they’re comfortable with, as long as it includes at least one area of excellence and one area of improvement.
It’s surprising how uncomfortable it can be to share what we do well, which is why sharing positive accomplishments is an indispensable part of this step. If you can admit that you did well at something, it’ll give your teammates the confidence to admit that they did well at something. Sharing your successes creates a sense of safety by dispelling the myth that talking about one’s accomplishments makes them immodest.
Step 3: Receive Peer Feedback
After each individual shares their self-review, they receive feedback from their teammates.
Peer feedback should include positive and constructive feedback. If a peer does not have enough exposure to the feedback recipient’s work, they can pass their turn.
From what I’ve observed and experienced, peers are just as nervous about giving constructive feedback as recipients are about receiving it. The first few times my team did the open feedback circle, most participants didn’t share constructive feedback. Not from a lack of trying, but because it is difficult to start tracking areas of improvement for your teammates and share it out loud. The open feedback circle exists to practice and overcome these challenges.
Example of an OFC round:
Stan (self-reviewer): This past month I did well as a team player. I was asked to help out on a few different projects, and feel I did a good job supporting them.
I could have done better on best idea wins. I jumped into an implementation for a feature rashly without thinking through other options. This caused me to backtrack and lose a few days of work. I’ll try to spend more time thinking about feature architecture in the future.
Kyle (peer reviewer): Stan, I was working on the project you helped with, and agree that your contribution really helped the team. One thing you can improve on is your testing. I’ve noticed that you sometimes miss adding unit tests on PRs. Happy to point out examples and help.
Wendy (peer reviewer): Stan, I appreciate how proactive you are in bringing the team together socially by organizing lunches and happy hours. I haven’t worked with you recently, so I don’t have any constructive feedback at the moment.
Butters (peer reviewer): Stan, thank you for helping me every time we have a production outage. You’re a team player and your knowledge of the codebase is invaluable. I’d like to see you lead more. You have good ideas, but they run out of steam without follow-through.
Why it Works
Vulnerability Cultivates Trust
In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle says “Exchanges of vulnerability, which we naturally tend to avoid, are the pathways through which trusting cooperation is built.”
The open feedback circle starts with vulnerability. It takes courage and vulnerability to talk about your missteps and your successes.
The self-review also gives your peers the gratification of contributing to your growth. If your peers know what you’d like to improve on, they can better assist you.
There’s solace in knowing that you’re not alone in facing a new challenge. Everyone takes turns in the feedback “hot seat,” in a given session. It may be difficult and awkward, but you’re all learning together.
Practice Makes Perfect
Playing sports, programming, writing, and most other skills improve with practice. The same is true of giving and receiving feedback.
After you’ve done the open feedback circle a few times, you’ll notice an improvement in the quality of feedback exchanged and in the attitude around giving and receiving feedback.
Performance Reviews are Not Affected
The open feedback circle is about helping each other improve. Participants should not get penalized for receiving constructive feedback from a colleague.
It is worth stating this clearly to your team — some team members may have only received feedback during performance reviews on prior teams.
Do This First
Align Around Operating Principles
Operating principles define how your team translates your company values into actions. Operating principles will reduce the burden on individuals to come up with standards by which they should evaluate their peers.
For a team of engineers, you can define engineering-specific operating principles.
For example, the value “Teamwork,” could lead to the operating principle “Create PRs with detailed descriptions to aid code reviewers.”
A value “Commitment to Customers,” could lead to the operating principle “Prioritize tickets that are most painful to customers.”
Once your team agrees on a set of operating principles, give them permission to hold each other accountable to them.
Set Some Ground Rules
Ground rules help manage the unpredictability of sharing feedback in an open setting. You don’t know what constructive feedback may come up between teammates, so talk to participants about exercising their best judgment and saving sensitive comments for a 1:1.
Encourage participants to ask their manager for advice if they’re unsure of how to deliver feedback in a helpful way.
Ask for Permission
Receiving constructive feedback in front of peers can be daunting, especially for individuals who aren’t accustomed to receiving it in any setting.
Meet with each teammate and ask them for permission to try the open feedback experiment. If you’re a manager, offer your guidance in framing their feedback.
I, as a manager, participated in my team’s open feedback circle. I found it beneficial, and I believe my reports did as well. Regardless, it can be optional. Peers meeting regularly to openly exchange feedback is already a huge step towards having a feedback-driven culture.
Here are some benefits of including your manager:
Managers are imperfect and are not above receiving feedback. Allow them to show you that.
Managers are feedback pros (or they’re working on it). Giving clear, actionable feedback is a job requirement for managers. We deliver feedback during 1:1s, performance reviews, and whenever else it is necessary. If you want to improve your feedback delivery, it may be helpful to observe how feedback is delivered by experienced feedback-givers.
You’ll be exposed to what your manager values and sees. Even if you aren’t the target of your manager’s feedback, what she says is useful to you. If your manager tells Joe that she appreciates his weekly project summaries, you’ll know that she appreciates project updates. If your manager tells Kim that she’s concerned about her burning out, you’ll know that your manager notices when teammates are pushing themselves too hard.
You can get feedback on your feedback. Deliberate practice is a proven technique that can be used to master almost any skill. It has two components: repetition and feedback. If you’re serious about mastering feedback, you’ll need to receive feedback on your feedback. Your manager can help with that. (I would generally recommend asking all your teammates to give you feedback on your feedback, but your manager will feel obliged to follow through.)
It Will be Uncomfortable the First Time
The first time your team tries the open feedback circle, it will be uncomfortable, because it’s new. Set the tone by reminding team members that the OFC is about trust and growth. It does not affect performance reviews.
If you’re nervous about the open format, you can start by sharing feedback in pairs. It’ll increase the length of your feedback session, but pairwise feedback is better than no feedback.
The open feedback circle was successful on my last team, so I’ll be sure to bring it to my future teams with some improvements:
Allocate enough time
On my last team, the open feedback circle took place at the end of our monthly engineering team meeting. On content-heavy days, we would run out of time to finish the OFC and team members would have to follow up separately.
Allocate 5 minutes for completing self-reviews and another 5 minutes per person for sharing. For example, if there are 6 participants, allocate at least 5 + (6*5) = 35 minutes.
Managers — help your team give you feedback
If you’re a manager, help your team give you feedback by offering these prompts:
Do you know if you’re meeting expectations for your role?
Do you know how to get to the next level in your role?
Are you clear on the company’s mission?
Are you clear on how your work contributes to the company’s mission?
Do you know what your manager’s priorities are?
Have you received constructive feedback in the last few weeks?
If the answer to any of these questions is no — that’s manager feedback!
Create a scalable format for larger teams
The OFC format I described does not scale well. As teams get larger, the meeting becomes long, and teammates won’t have enough context on the work of all their peers.
If the meeting becomes untenable because of team size, you can either run open feedback circles within project groups or use a light-weight asynchronous feedback model.
The open feedback circle unlocks more than comfort and competence in exchanging feedback. It accelerates the growth of each team member. It also amplifies trust and camaraderie on your team. Feedback, when delivered the right way, helps team members feel seen and supported.
Would you try the open feedback circle on your team? If not, why? Please let me know in the comments below, or email me — I would love to learn more!
Books and Podcasts
Tim Ferris / Josh Waitzikin Interview: Josh Waitzikin talks about his latest pursuit of mastering foiling through repetition.
Principles: Every challenge is an opportunity to learn.
Radical Candor: Criticize the action or the work, not the person.
Nonviolent Communication: Covers a framework that helps with difficult conversations. I have used this framework at work and at home.