3 tips for feedback in a Scrum team

Uhhh, yet another blog post about giving feedback… We’re well aware that there are already thousands of articles about this topic. But we’d like to invite you to ask yourself: When was the last time someone did something, that annoyed you and you directly went to this colleague afterwards to tell him/her how this made you feel? Can’t recall when this happened? Then, please keep on reading!

When our teammates do something that makes us angry, there are typically 5 reactions:

  1. This was so bad, he/she should realize this on his/her own.
  2. He/she needs to know this was bad, but the Scrum Master has to tell him/her.
  3. Can’t the manager say that this is unacceptable behaviour?
  4. I’ll wait for the next retrospective/annual feedback to bring this up.
  5. I have said this so often, he/she should know by now.

Honest feedback means you care

No, your colleague will probably not guess what you think is unacceptable. Norms in a team are formed by conversation about it. They are the common denominator of all team members’ expectations of a desired behaviour. Therefore: if no one calls out unacceptable behaviour, it will feel like accepted behaviour over time. Even if it does feel uncomfortable, giving constructive feedback about things you did not like, helps your colleagues to improve. Telling them means you care about them, that you value them and that you want them to grow. The awkward feeling of saying: “Hey, I think you could do better here!” quickly disappears if you say: “How do you see it? Is there a way I can help you to improve?” This is even more important if you are working remotely.

We often hear people say: “I don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss this remote. I prefer to speak about it face-to-face.” It’s ok if you wait for your colleague to be back in the office the next day, but don’t postpone it for longer. With colleagues who are working from home or at different locations, we often witness that the feedback will never be given. And we know from colleagues who work remotely that they appreciate very much if someone reaches out to them and asks for a call.

The great art of giving valuable feedback is to leave out personal interpretations and only focus on the perception and effect of the behavior. In addition, I-messages are essential, since it is all about your perception.

A simple and practical way to give constructive feedback in an appreciative and respectful manner derives from Nonviolent Communication (by Rosenberg) and is divided into three steps:

  1. Perception: What did I observe?
  2. Effect: What was the effect on me?
  3. Wish: What is my wish for the future?

Here’s an example:

  1. Perception: “I noticed that you seemed absent at our last meeting. You often looked at your mobile phone and hardly participated in the joint discussion.”
  2. Effect: “I felt that another topic was on your mind at that moment and that you were absent. In this way, you miss the contents of our meeting and do not contribute anything from your side. That’s a pity, because we are running the project together.”
  3. Wish: “My wish for the future is that you seek the conversation with me in advance. If there is an important topic, it makes sense to clarify it first and then be present in the meeting with a clear mind. With pleasure, we can then also simply move the appointment. Just talk to me openly.”

These three steps are a good guideline that you should have in mind before and when giving feedback. Now that we tackled these basics, let’s move on to the 3 tipps for feedback in a Scrum team:

1) Don’t wait

Give feedback as early as possible, in the best case directly after the incident happened. This helps you and your colleague because your memory is still fresh. Your colleague might ask questions about details and if he or she decides to do so, they can immediately adapt the behaviour. Furthermore, there is nothing more awkward than working in a team for several months before finding out that everyone had strong concerns about your work, but waited for the last appointment of your probation period to tell your manager. Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, puts this to the point: “…but allowing problems to go unaddressed will only result in much bigger problems in the future, when you may be even less equipped to deal with them.”

2) Don’t pass feedback on

If you have feedback to give, please tell that person yourself. And first and foremost, only speak for yourself! If you tell your colleague: “The team thinks you are not capable to do this.”, it will definitely leave him/her with an awkward feeling of: “How many team members do think I am unable to do my work? Why exactly do they feel like this and why didn’t they tell me?” As Scrum Masters, we have to stress that you may speak to your Scrum Master / Agile Coach about the matter, but it’s about you to address your feedback. The Scrum Master cannot give background information about what exactly annoyed you. On top of that, three team members telling someone they did not like a behaviour is ten times more efficient that one consolidated Scrum Master feedback.

The same is true for feedback via your manager. If you immediately complain to the manager instead of telling the person directly, it may take much longer for the manager to give feedback than for you. What would you prefer? Would you like your colleagues to give direct feedback to you or should they pass it on to your manager instead?

3) Praise often

This post is mainly focussed on giving negative feedback, but of course, the same is true for praise. Honest and specific praise costs you very little effort and has a huge effect. This is especially true if you have talked about an improvement your colleague could make and then realize that they actually changed the behaviour. Instant praise is the best way to reinforce this.

How we do it at ePages

First and foremost, ePages has a company culture that values openness, honesty, and direct feedback. The onboarding for new employees is characterized by often and early feedback from different levels (HR, peers, and manager) and of course the new employee also gives feedback to us and regarding the onboarding process. All employees participate in a 360 degree feedback process at least once a year. In this process, everyone is rated on communication, collaboration and quality of the work. Furthermore, your peers and your manager give comments on what possible improvements they see. To be “rated” by your peers sounds worse than it is. In practice, the comments your colleagues and managers give are usually appreciative and very helpful.

But of course, giving feedback once a year is not enough in a self-organized team. Therefore, we as Scrum Masters encourage the team members to give feedback often. To support the teams in actually doing so, we first have a look at what the team needs. This may go from offering a training on the principles of feedback to doing regular feedback retrospectives. Feedback is a key element of a retrospective, but of course not the only one. Therefore, we also use this time slot for giving one-on-one feedback in pairs. The teams liked this so much that we now do this regularly every two to three months. It is a nice way to have some appointed time to make sure that you actually tell your colleagues what you liked and did not like.

How do you ensure that feedback in your team is given early and often? When was the last time you gave feedback to your colleagues - be it positive or negative - directly after the event? How do you give feedback to your colleagues? What guidelines do you use? Let us know on Twitter @epagesdevs!

If you want to read further, here are our recommendations: Kim Scott - Why Leading a Remote Team Requires Radical Candor or check out her book Radical Candor.

About the authors

Stefanie Holler is a certified Scrum Master. With a passion for learning as well as for Inspect & Adapt cycles, she uses her background as a facilitator to enhance team and personal development.
Miriam is a Scrum Master who is keen on promoting an agile culture. She has a passion for coaching, which she integrates in her work with the teams.