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Continuous improvement in a safe environment

When working with technology and software development, we often hear about "continuous improvement", a concept taken from production systems that represents a continuous effort to improve products, services, or processes. Its implementation can be summarized by the following three Kaizen paradigms:
  • Feedback: The core principle of the continuous improvement process is the (self) reflection of processes
  • Efficiency: The purpose of the continuous improvement process is the identification, reduction, and elimination of suboptimal processes
  • Evolution: The emphasis of the continuous improvement process is on incremental, continual steps rather than giant leaps
The need for continuous improvement can be perceived in many ways in our workplace: in the products and processes of our clients, our company's or team's internal processes and ultimately in the professional journey we’re all on.

It's about the learning practices that lead to the continuous improvement that we’ll talk about in this article, focusing especially on feedback.

Learning as a mechanism of continuous improvement

We, as individuals, are constantly seeking to learn and thus improve our capacity to respond to the challenges we’re faced with. We want to know and master more technologies, we want to improve the way we influence clients, we want to provide elegant solutions to complex problems, we want to create disruptive products. This means looking for the necessary proficiency to make the hard things easier while also meeting the formal expectations that make us progress in our professional career.

Thus, learning isn’t only a necessary but also an incessant activity. But when it comes to actually learn something, we know it doesn't come easy and that there's no magic formula that works all the time.

For example, the "10,000 hours rule" which became famous through Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, states that you need that much time of practice to become really good at something. However, this isn’t exactly how things work.

K. Anders Ericsson (co-author of a study about high-level violinists that gave origin to Gladwell's "magic number") claims in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise that, more than the amount of time, it's the way you study or practice that determines your proficiency and excellence levels in a particular subject. He mentions two learning processes that lead to this: intentional practice and deliberate practice.

These practices are defined by small increments made in order to reach a goal and a mindset change when it comes to learning. According to Ericsson, 10,000 hours of repetitive practice don't necessarily assure excellence, there are three common myths that must be debunked:
 
  1. The belief that each person's abilities are limited by genetic, predetermined characteristics
  2. The notion that if you do something for a long time, you will consequently become better at it
  3. The thought that effort is the only thing you need to improve, that if you try hard enough, you will get better
The deliberate practice mindset offers a different perspective about learning: anyone can get better, but that takes the right approach. If you aren’t getting better, it's not because you lack innate talent, it's because you aren’t practising the right way.

You should do three things: focus, seek feedback, and adjust when necessary. Break the ability you seek to gain into components that you can execute repetitively and analyze effectively, identify your weaknesses and find ways to solve them. It's worth emphasizing: deliberate practice requires feedback. You need to know if you're doing something right and, if not, to know where or how you're making it wrong.

It looks simple, but remember one fundamental characteristic of our organism: the tendency to reach homeostasis which occurs whenever the body seeks to stay in a state of equilibrium, avoiding the waste of vital resources. And this has not only physiological impacts but also psychological. We may synthesize the psychological aspects in a very well-known concept, the comfort zone.

Calling something "comfort zone" may lead us to conceive some optimal point of equilibrium, but it's an emotional prison. It's our brains bargaining for placidity, selling the comfort of the known pain in the place of the fear of the unknown. Being slightly off of this zone means provoking our organism so it can gradually adapt itself to the new conditions, making it more resilient. This is the kind of battle we fight with our own minds when we put ourselves in the position of giving and receiving feedback that, as we've already seen, is one of the fundamental mechanisms of the learning and continuous improvement processes.

However, if you push it too hard away from your comfort zone, you risk placing yourself in a situation of emotional imbalance that will end up jeopardizing your learning efforts. This is especially true in situations that are outside of our full control, such as in our work environment.

It’s where there's a great deal of pressure for us to improve continuously and where the feedback culture is mentioned as, more than desirable, necessary. So, let's start looking directly to the reality in our workplace then.

Learning in our workplace

At ThoughtWorks, we actively strive to promote diversity within a safe environment for everyone. We’re constantly absorbing new information, broadening our comprehension of different realities, becoming aware of our privileges or the prejudices we may suffer. Often times we want to speak, while other we need simply to listen. We want to expand our empathy and finally become a diverse and fully-functioning group , where each individual can safely contribute to the growth of everyone else towards their career paths.

There is, however, an inherent tension in this safe environment. We're a heterogeneous group that is under constant transformation. Each person here has their own personal context and each one faces different challenges that depend on where we are in our professional careers. Interpersonal relations are always changing, new connections are formed and others undone. In short, there are lots of people willing to learn, teach and solve the problems they’re faced with, in an efficient and effective way, while they seek to maintain their mental health.

In this context, it's important to remember that what we must learn in order to become better professionals doesn't boil down just to technology and processes. There are several emotional aspects we must master, both at personal and collective levels. Those are usually called interpersonal (or consulting) skills.

In order for someone to teach or give feedback, another must be willing to learn and receive feedback. So how can we put ourselves in the position of taking someone off her comfort zone, knowing that we cherish above all the maintenance of our safe environment?

It's important to understand that the comfort zone must be always contained within the safe environment, being able to expand itself according to the learning journey of each person, but never breaching this outer boundary:


Figure 1: Feedback in a safe environment

The concept of respecting the limits may be seen as a protocol of intentions, where each feedback opportunity must start with the clear and legitimate intention of promoting learning between colleagues, who are acting in the best way they're capable of, having in mind that there's a clear boundary that must be respected.

Feedback as a fundamental mechanism

Feedback exists in several scopes, all of them important for our continuous improvement process. From those almost automatic and seldom perceived as such, all the way down to formal moments such as one-on-one feedback sessions.

Giving feedback may mean going beyond known and safe limits. Getting feedback may mean there’s a risk of hurting people’s feelings. Feedback isn’t only the information we want to transmit and how we intend to do it. The image we project, who we are and what we do are an integral part of the feedback context. These factors may bring strong emotions to the surface. It's a natural reaction. It protects us from pretty awkward situations but, on the other hand, it may lead us to promptly say that "I don't feel comfortable discussing this" as a psychological shortcut to avoid leaving our current comfort zone.

What to do then? We’re co-responsible for building our colleagues' journeys, therefore omission is not a valid option. Longer-serving colleagues should help set behavioural expectations: basic project hygiene like respecting work hours and other work agreements and the like. More experienced people should share their empirical knowledge. Behavioral issues must be addressed. That doesn't mean we can ignore people’s sensibilities just because feedback has to be given..

It's a long process. At first, your brain may activate all of its defense mechanisms and make any difficult conversation into a painful experience. You can easily end up judging the messenger instead of the message. It's necessary in the first place to build trust and empathy between the parts, so you can evolve ideas and not simply confront them. You need to put in place safety checks, without assuming that all people involved in a conversation share the same level of knowledge, understanding, or emotional investment in the subject at hand.

So these are some questions you would ask yourself:
  • How can I acknowledge the limits of the other person's comfort zone while giving feedback?
  • How can I receive feedback and signal the (real) boundaries of my comfort zone?
  • How can I give feedback to someone who I regard as privileged?
Within the principles we're discussing here and our guiding values, you can start to focus on what must be done in order to give an effective feedback. Feedback is more than a piece of advice or a timely tip, it has a wider lifecycle, with the following characteristics:
  • Goal-oriented. The information you provide will only become feedback from the moment that, within its context, it helps the other person to attain a specific goal
  • Tangible and transparent. Good feedback not only has a clear goal, but also involves tangible results clearly associated with this goal
  • Actionable. Concrete, specific, and useful feedback provides the necessary information so the other person can take a specific action aimed at attaining some goal
  • Friendly. A piece of information will only be correctly absorbed if we take into consideration the psychosocial aspects that we've been discussing here. No matter how true or  accurate the information you bring to feedback is, it will only be effective if you think about the way you deliver
  • Timely. Usually, the closer to the observed fact, the better. Within the deliberate practice mindset, we want to adjust our faulty actions as soon as possible
  • Continuous. When you give some feedback meant to support someone else to make the necessary adjustments to her journey, you can follow up her evolution and provide new feedback based on the changes you have noticed in the period. This strengthens the continuous improvement mechanism
  • Consistent. As we've already seen, feedback comes wrapped in a set of metadata that are read by the receiver. The items you bring to a feedback must therefore be consistent with what you practice yourself and with actions you would take yourself

Conclusion

In short, it's not easy. It may generate distress, but it's necessary. Feedback is a powerful instrument — but it has to be a deliberate practice that respects each person’s limits and with the mutually agreed intention of helping people to develop..

As Kim Scott says in her book Radical Candor,

"Relationships are the core building block of doing work you love. If you can’t love the people you work with or for, it’s unlikely you’ll love the work very long."

There's nobody better than you to know the limits of your comfort zone. Challenge them, exercising the feedback practice and broadening your ability to positively impact your own and other people's journeys. Taking into consideration the tips we shared here, you can seize the next feedback opportunity to format it in a more effective way. You can also share this article, so that the "ground rules" become clear and everyone's boundaries communicated and respected.