What is the Purpose of Feedback?

By Kirsten Collins, Managing Director of AdaptivePurpose LLC

Representing AdaptivePurpose, I attended Feedback Summit 2015 last week held at the Open Gov Hub in Washington DC.  We spent two days discussing feedback and hearing from various organizations on how they are collecting feedback from their stakeholders, beneficiaries, and citizens (the term to be used was a whole other debate).   Everyone there agreed on the importance of collecting feedback and that we need to do a better job across all sectors collecting feedback from those who are impacted by programming interventions.  This seems difficult to argue against, and it certainly seemed obvious to me as an evaluator because collecting feedback is what I do.  It isn’t enough, though, just to collect feedback. What matters is what you do with this feedback? And anyway, what exactly IS feedback in the first place?  These themes were percolating in discussions among the participants, but the focus of the summit was not specifically on the purpose of feedback, rather it appeared narrowly focused on feedback itself.

In this context, feedback was mostly framed in terms of information (data, opinions, experiences, responses to questions, etc.).  What happens, however, if you frame feedback in terms of systems and feedback loops?  Feedback then becomes a force for change: information which requires some sort of action; adjustment; reaction, which is then fed back into the system creating loops of assessment, adjustment and reassessment. 

In fact, unless we think in terms of systems and loops, collecting feedback becomes inconsequential.  Feedback must be fed back into the program design, shared with all the stakeholders, and adjustments made as needed.  Many discussions at Feedback Summit 2015 did relate to incorporating feedback into program design, and how to work within the institutional and time constraints to allow for the incorporation of feedback.  Another common theme was the importance of sharing the feedback collected with the respondents, or stakeholders.  It became apparent to me that many participants were discussing systems change; whether in their own organizations; within the funding/donor system; or the larger systems that they are operating in, however, they were not using the language of systems change. 

The recognition of systems change offers insight into the set of strategies required to change the conditions you are attempting to affect, and offers another set of tools through which to intervene.  Systems change requires a holistic approach which seeks to uncover underlying conditions and examines the interconnections and interrelationships between the elements of the system.  It requires a solid understanding of systems and the dynamics of the many types of feedback loops (balancing, reinforcing, etc.) which can exist within a system. It also offers the recognition that change is not necessarily linear (often due to delayed feedback loops) and therefore, a targeted, small action can trigger a much bigger reaction.  Consequently, understanding the system dynamics and looking for leverage points can be an important strategy.

In this context, it is also important to realize that the mere presence of a feedback loop doesn’t necessarily mean that the system is working well (Meadows, 2008).  Singularly engaging in single-loop learning processes only allows for minor programmatic or technical adjustments and will not uncover systemic problems.  This requires the deeper, double-loop learning processes (Argyris & Schon, 1978) which question the governing variables, and examines underlying objectives, goals, values, beliefs, policies, and norms.  It requires asking: what is the purpose of collecting feedback? 


References:

Meadows, Donella (2008).  Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Sustainability Institute. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Argyris, C. and Schon, D. (1978). Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.