Feedback: rocks and sponges

I once saw Sir Clive Woodward (England Rugby World Cup winning Head Coach) speak at an IBM conference. He said two things that really stuck with me:

  1. “Teams that win technology usually win”
  2. “There are sponges and rocks, I always picked sponges”

Firstly, Sir Clive invested in technology and gave every member of the England team a laptop. Despite criticism at the time, he explained the aim was to see which players would pick up the new tool and figure out how to use it, rather than saying, ‘I don’t use technology, I play rugby’. A classic ‘growth mindset’ test.

Secondly, when it came to gathering data on the pitch, Sir Clive installed tags in the player’s shirts so he could track their movement. This data was shared with the players and instead of coaches leading feedback, players were required to analyse their own performance and present back.


I’ve worked in business long enough to know that people don’t give each other feedback. People are bad at giving it, and people are bad at receiving it. The lack of communication between leaders and their teams, and between peers, means there’s a subtext to every project and elephants in every meeting room.

I expect this problem is exacerbated in British culture where everyone is trying polite, giving rise to our unique brand of passive aggressivity. The symptoms are awkward conversations where colleagues surprise each other with feedback leading to fight or flight responses.

Feedback is everything because basically, it provides a mirror for our behaviour and how it impacts the world. With digital, our behaviour is constantly reinforced by rewards such as points, stars and likes. Similarly, in sport, it’s much easier to put digital touchpoints in place to track things and thus improve performance. Our workplaces without regular feedback are like very bad games, or to put it another way, are like teams that can’t track their movements on the pitch.

Without feedback there is no improvement. There is only the sense that somehow we’re refined entities and things simply happen around us. We stop being sponges and become rocks, and eventually, we end up on a beach with all the other rocks, trying to crush the sponges.

I recently needed to consider how I’d instigate a feedback culture in a medium sized business and I think the programme of work would go something like this:

  1. Speak to the audience and find out what barriers they have to giving and receiving feedback (both up and down the business hierarchy).
  2. Use the Concern, Task, Resource model to identify the digital tools/content that could be deployed to facilitate more conversations, and better performance of these conversations.
  3. Benchmark the employee population against business KPIs e.g. churn, engagement, revenue, project completion times.
  4. Run a pilot where a participant group are given facilitated feedback practice, practical digital content delivered through a mobile device, and regular check-ins with peers or project managers.
  5. After the pilot of 8 weeks, check the KPIs in the participant group vs a control group of employees without the tools and support. Assess the impact of the programme (if any).
  6. Gather feedback from participants (both givers and receivers of feedback). Iterate the approach based on what is reported.

This is a broad brush design, but I hope it illustrates the focus and mix of face to face and digital in such a programme. I don’t think I’m saying anything new here, so why is it that feedback is so difficult? Many of the standard challenges I see when working for different clients e.g. low engagement, poor leadership practices, command and control behaviours, bullying, lack of diversity and so on, could be partly solved if only people were equipped to give feedback, and people were humble enough to receive it.

If you need help with anything. Drop me a line

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