We have been conditioned to seek feedback. Why not pursue feedforward?
Feedback, by its nature and name, focuses on the past. Feedforward, on the other hand, peers into the future with a sense of moving forward. Both can be valuable. Looking forward may offer the most upside.
It is a military truism that generals prepare to fight the last war, not the next one. The same holds true in public relations. You don’t conquer the next generation of communications challenges by fighting past battles.
While feedback informs you of what went right and what went wrong, feedforward can inform about how to tackle anticipated future issues. Feedforward incorporates feedback, but projects it forward. Feedforward skips past guilt and resentment for failure dredged up in the feedback process.
The advantage of a feedforward perspective is widening the horizon of options. Feedback is limited to reactions of what actually happened. Feedforward allows you to imagine potential scenarios. Feedback has the quality of history. Feedforward is more like science fiction. Feedforward taps into an energy pool of what could be.
“Quality communications – between and among people at all levels and every department and division – is the glue that holds organizations together,” writes Marshall Goldsmith, author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. “By using feedforward – and by encouraging others to use it – leaders can dramatically improve the quality of communication in their organizations, ensuring that the right message is conveyed and those who receive it are receptive to its content.”
“The result,” he concludes, “is a much more dynamic, much more open organization – one whose employees focus on the promise of the future rather than dwelling on the mistakes of the past.”
Of course, Goldsmith’s view undersells the benefits of seeking candid feedback. Feedback isn’t always negative and recipients of feedback aren’t always put on the defensive. Reliable analysis of strategies, initiatives, output and products is part of a constructive feedback loop with a goal of continuous improvement.
Feedback loops are just that – loops. They are intended to improve what is, not explore other options. Honest feedback can surface other options, which is where feedforward comes in as a means to evaluate other ways of doing or making something.
The difference and interplay between feedback and feedforward is analogous to the management dilemma of correcting an employee’s weaknesses or leveraging their strengths. It is never exclusively one or the other. However, too often, correcting an employee’s shortcomings dominates interactions, with little attention paid to how an employee strength could be nurtured and maximized.
Feedback serves a useful purpose. Feedforward may serve a higher purpose. Acknowledging that and learning how to incorporate both in strategy development and decision-making may turn into an unexpected organizational strength, creating a clear differentiation and disrupting the status quo.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.