What do we mean when we say “feedback”?

A short feedback taxonomy

I’m expecting a few shorter than usual posts in the coming weeks as I’m adjusting to my new work circumstances, but will stay committed to quality > quantity. 

Feedback is a word we love to use in professional settings, yet I’ve had a recent realization that we tend to use it to mean different things. 

Oxford Languages (Google’s English dictionary provider) defines feedback as: 

Information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.

While this definition seems somewhat lacking or incomplete, it’s a good starting point. Feedback is information about a reaction to <something> used as a means with a particular <end> in mind. The different somethings that the feedback is a reaction to and the different ends that providing the feedback is meant to accomplish are two key differentiators that will allow us to distinguish between different types of feedback. To those two, we can add a third, which pertains to the period of time that the feedback is provided as a reaction two. 

Let’s get a bit less theoretical and a bit more practical. The following is a draft taxonomy that’s likely incomplete. Even in its nascent form, it provides some useful distinctions and insight. 

In a professional setting I find it useful to discern between: 

A. Feedback about the work

The work refers to a work product (deliverable), a project, a plan, a decision that needs to be made, etc. 

The trigger for further distinction between types of feedback about the work is the lifecycle stage of the work: 

  1. Problem validation — am I trying to solve a problem that’s worth solving?
  2. Solution exploration — what are all the potential ways so solve this problem? 
  3. Problem-solution fit — which solution (out of the now known set) will likely best solve the problem? 
  4. Continuous improvement — how well is the implemented solution solving the problem? 

B. Feedback about how we work 

This can potentially be further decomposed to “feedback about us” and “feedback about you” but I’m keeping those grouped together for the time being. 

The first trigger for further distinction between types of feedback about how we work discerns between different ends, and the second discerns between different time periods: 

1. Evaluatory / performance feedback — usually the responsibility of the manager).

2. Developmental feedback — how can we work better together? Can come from all collaborators and customers of the individual. Decomposed further by the period of time covered: 

  • Situational feedback — delivered in the moment or right after the moment. 
  • Episodic feedback — looks at broader behavioral and relational patterns and, usually facilitated by a formal quarterly/semi-annual/annual process. 

These different use cases of feedback often require a different process or structure to support them. A catch-all structure that does not account for the different types usually leads to a “jack of all trades, master of none” outcome. 

What do we mean when we say “feedback”?

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