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Feedback Should Be a Journey into the Future, Not the Past

Get past the mistakes. Focus on the learnings instead.

“New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.” — Lao Tzu

Is that time of year again. We are still reflecting on the year behind.

Performance review season is upon us too — everyone is getting ready for one of the most frustrating business practices ever. Reminding people of their mistakes not only doesn’t change their behavior but gets everyone stuck in endless rumination.

What if we use feedback to design the future rather than to relive the past?

Shift the conversation — let go of what happened and move on. Your team wants to grow, not to be reminded of what they did wrong.

Don’t Get Stuck in the Past

“Mistakes should be examined, learned from, and discarded; not dwelled upon and stored.”
– Tim Fargo

Focusing on what’s possible versus on what’s broken is a more effective way to drive change.

Rehashing old incidents or putting too much emphasis on weaknesses doesn’t help. That’s why most people hate performance reviews, as this study shows — even those with a strong desire to learn hate being criticized.

Help people become the best version of themselves instead — focus on what they are capable of achieving, instead of what they didn’t do well.

Spending too much time in the past can be dangerous. I’ve worked with too many teams who feel their managers’ feedback hinders development instead of facilitating it — everyone gets stuck in what went wrong. Rehashing mistakes don’t help people grow; it just promotes guilt and blame, not learnings. We cannot change the past, but we can shape our future.

Most organizations let their past define them — they can’t let go of it. However, being proud of past achievements or feeling guilty about the mistakes they made is dangerous.

Peter Drucker famously said, “Every organization must be prepared to abandon everything it does to survive in the future.”

Those words feel more current than ever, though Drucker wrote them in 1999 as my prolific friend Bruce McTague recently reminded me. Sticking to our past — both successes and failures — gets people and organizations stuck.Balance the conversation.

What should we stop doing?

What might we start doing?

What shall we continue doing?

I always loved the “start/continue/ stop doing” approach because it’s driven by action. Not only it creates a bridge between the past and future but also invites us to reflect on the things we must abandon.

How Spotify Builds the Future

The Swedish music streaming company purposefully avoids getting stuck in the past by using a 70–20–10 approach, as reported by Corporate Rebels. Instead of putting too much emphasis on what happened, Spotify’s team spend the most time on what might or should happen.

Twice a year, managers and employees have development talks — they prioritize helping people grow over appraising them.

As Johan Sellgren, Director of Staff R&D at Spotify explains, “We try to hold individual ‘development talks’ twice a year where we address the future, the now, and the past.

The 70–20–10 approach suggests: spend 70% of the conversation discussing the future, 20% on the present, and just 10% of the time on the past.

The focus on the future and present allows people to grow — rehashing the past, won’t change it. Adjusting behaviors today can change our future.

Move On

Next time you are giving a performance review, avoid getting stuck in the past. I’m not saying to avoid discussing what went wrong. But, focus on the lesson, not on the mistake. Move on.

Look back to acknowledge how far you’ve come.

Balance the conversation — remember Spotify’s 70–20–10 approach. Adjust the ratio to your preferences. I recommend putting more emphasis on the present — dreaming too much about the future can be as harmful as getting stuck in the past.

The present is the only moment we can control. Visit the past, but don’t spend too much time or energy there. To grow, we must let go of both our mistakes and successes. Only when you are ready to abandon everything, you can focus on creating a better future.

Create a culture of ongoing feedback makes it easier to move on. Feedback is a gift. Surprise people by helping them grow, don’t give them the usual present.

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