Benefits and Concerns

Giving and Getting Feedback

About this Lesson

In the context of business, learning means closing the gap between what you intend to accomplish and the results you are currently experiencing. Learning by trial-and-error can be slow, painful, and expensive. Small businesses can’t afford to learn slowly. Effective feedback helps you learn faster and less painfully. Furthermore, your learning will be the most efficient when you elicit both reinforcing and balancing feedback:

  • Reinforcing or positive feedback encourages you to repeat or amplify a behavior or action.
  • Balancing or negative feedback discourages a behavior or action.

In this lesson, Laura Black and I discuss a technique called Benefits and Concerns. Not everybody is skilled at providing useful feedback. Benefits and concerns (“Bs & Cs”) is a framework for drawing out specific, actionable feedback. It can be applied at the end of any substantive interaction or milestone. Used well, Bs & Cs can help you achieve your objectives faster.

Start with Benefits

Laura observes that most of us tend to be predisposed toward providing critical, balancing feedback. So, she finds it useful to start a debrief with benefits.What did participants like about what you’re doing? General feedback can feel good, but it’s not necessarily very useful. “I thought everything was great!” simply doesn’t yield insight into which specific actions you should repeat or amplify. Probe in order to draw out feedback that is sufficiently specific to be actionable.

Phrase Balancing Feedback in Terms of Concerns

If you were to say to me, “Dave, I hate the sound of your voice,” you may be speaking truthfully but your feedback isn’t actionable in that form. On the other hand, if you were to say, “Dave, how might you speak in a more animated way in order to make your podcasts more engaging?” I’d have information upon which I could act.

Laura recommends rephrasing balancing feedback in two ways:

  • I wish I knew…” indicates that there is an information gap. You need to find out something in order to make progress.
  • How to…” indicates a process gap. You need to do something differently or better in order to achieve your objectives.

It’s great when you can get feedback providers to use these terms, but not everybody is inclined or able to do so. It takes practice. However, you can rephrase critical feedback in these terms as a step toward making the feedback you receive in any form more actionable.

The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys is a technique borrowed from the Six Sigma quality movement. The idea is to explore cause-and-effect relationships in sufficient detail to uncover the root cause or issue by asking “Why?” iteratively. Experience shows that the presenting problem is rarely the root cause. While five levels of questioning might not always be required or desirable, the 5 Whys serve as a reminder not to take all feedback at face value. Sometimes, it takes some digging to gain the most learning from the feedback you receive. For example:

  • Presenting problem – I hate your website.
  • Why? – I can never find what I’m looking for.
  • Why? – It’s difficult to read.
  • Why? – The text is tiny and is hard to see against the garish background color.

The provider of feedback is probably being truthful when she says she hates your website. That’s useful, balancing feedback. What’s even more useful is learning that she might hate it a lot less if you increased the font size and changed the font or background colors.

The 5 Whys

Translate Insight Into Action

Gaining insight from well-articulated and sufficiently detailed benefits and concerns is necessary but insufficient. To translate that insight into improved results requires action. Laura recommends matching every concern with one or more action steps that answer three questions:

  • What will be done to address the concern?
  • Who will be responsible for taking the action?
  • When will the action be completed?

Receiving high-quality feedback can be overwhelming. Translating insights into action steps give you a way to proceed productively. Furthermore, you’re likely to identify additional dependencies and opportunities for more productive activities in the process.

Key Ideas

  • Small and early-stage businesses simply don’t have the resources to rely solely on learning through trial-and-error.
  • High-quality feedback accelerates effective learning.
  • Reinforcing and balancing feedback are needed.
  • The Benefits and Concerns framework is a useful way to elicit both kinds of feedback.
  • Ask for benefits first.
  • Phrase (or rephrase) balancing feedback in terms of “How to…?” or “I wish I knew…” in order to make it actionable.
  • Use the 5 Whys technique to make feedback sufficiently detailed.
  • Help translate insight into action by matching every concern with a corresponding action step that answers what? who? and by when?

Read the Video Transcript

The following has been lightly edited to make it easier to read.

We’re talking about giving and getting feedback. But what specifically are we going to talk about today?

Today we’re going to talk about a method for eliciting feedback called Benefits and Concerns. It’s one of my favorite tools because it really helps us avoid what is not so euphemistically called the shit sandwich.

Usually, when we think of feedback, we think of receiving criticism. But critical feedback is just one kind of feedback. Technically, it’s balancing feedback. If I say something to you, and you say, “Don’t do that,” or “Do that more quietly,” you’re giving me balancing feedback. You’re trying to balance the signal I just emitted.

If, on the other hand, I say something and you say, “That’s great, I’d like to hear more like that,” then that is reinforcing or amplifying feedback. Benefits and Concerns make sure that we elicit both kinds.

Remind me, why is it important that we elicit both reinforcing and balancing feedback?

It’s simply more efficient for learning. We talked about how feedback, in general, accelerates learning because the alternative is to learn through trial and error. And that’s probably the slowest and most painful way possible to learn.

But if we hear only criticism, if all we hear is “Don’t do that,” and “That wasn’t good,” and “I didn’t like that,” then we really don’t know what about what we’re doing in a complex activity that shouldn’t be deleted or omitted or reduced. We need to also hear what is effective and should be reinforced or amplified.

Tell me more about the Benefits and Concerns framework. How exactly does it work? When and where do you use it? And how does it serve to elicit actionable feedback?

I use Benefits and Concerns to recap a conversation that contains some feedback. And I find that useful for two reasons. The first is, it helps me make explicit what I think I heard and make sure that I received the signals accurately from the person providing feedback. And it also helps the person providing feedback feel heard, and that gives that person a chance to clarify signals that I may have misunderstood.

The way it works is pretty straightforward. You always start with eliciting benefits. And the question I use is what was good about that experience, or what did you like about what just happened? And benefits can take shape in any form, and they can be phrased any way, and they can be at any level of abstraction.

Can you give me an example of what constitutes a benefit statement?

Well, it may be that the person—if you’re showing, say, a prototype of your website—the person may say, “I really liked the color scheme,” or “I liked the way the page populated the screen so fast.” Unfortunately, sometimes when people give feedback, they give very general feedback. So they could say, “Well, it was just great. I liked everything about it. It was awesome.” And while it may feel good, that’s not the most helpful in the sense of being useful and actionable kinds of reinforcing feedback.

In those cases, we want to draw out a little more specifics. So we can say, “What did you see or hear that you liked?” We’re actually asking the person to help us understand what they observed through their senses and how they interpreted it. So they may say, “I liked the interface a lot.” And you can say, “What about the interface worked for you?” And then you may hear, “Well, I felt like I knew just where to look and just where to click.” And so you can either be satisfied that your layout is working for you, or you can even draw out some more information about why they felt competent as they looked at your screen.

The notion of drawing out benefits isn’t probing for compliments. The objective is to find the specific behaviors and actions that you’re taking that are worth repeating and expanding. On the flip side, what’s involved in drawing out concerns?

Well, because we’re predisposed to offer critical feedback or balancing feedback—I think generally as people, we’re predisposed to that—I want to reinforce that it’s really helpful to start with benefits and to make explicit what worked.

When we turn to concerns, it’s helpful to say, “Okay, so what concerned you about what you saw?” You can actually use that word. Or if you want to be more dramatic, you can say, “What didn’t you like?” But the important thing when we’re eliciting concerns or balancing feedback is that we want to phrase the feedback in terms of two ways, either “How to…” or “I wish I knew…” Now we can ask the feedback provider to speak in those two kinds of ways. But unless you practice, it’s a little hard. So they can state their concerns however they want. And then we can record them or interpret them in terms of how to or I wish I knew.

Those two ways of recording concerns help in a couple of ways. “How to” really describes a process problem. I didn’t know what to do next. “I wish I knew” describes an information gap. I should have had information that I didn’t have. Together, those can help you stay on the sunny side of balancing feedback.

For instance, if you hear from someone, “Oh, I just hated the interface,” that is not actionable. It may be accurate in terms of the person’s feelings, but it’s not actionable for you. And so this is where, again, you want to draw down and drive down, perhaps by asking, “Well, why is that?” And then the person may say, “Well, I didn’t know where to click.” Or you could say, “Well, why is that?” And the person might say, “Well, the colors. I couldn’t even read the words on the screen.”

The Five Whys, which is a tool from total quality management, can often help us just keep asking and probing for the information that we find, essentially, we can then learn to act on. And that’s what did the person observe from what we presented, and how did they orient or make sense of it?

So Benefits and Concerns is a framework for taking general reinforcing and balancing feedback and translating it into something that we can act upon. What ways do you use to translate that potentially useful information into real action? I mean, just because we understand the situation better doesn’t automatically translate into our acting upon that understanding.

When I receive a real rich round of feedback, it can feel very clarifying because I have insights. But it can also feel a little overwhelming. And to make sure that I can and do act on the feedback I heard, I usually look at every concern one by one and try to not just answer or identify, but write down answers to three questions. And that’s what should be done to address this concern, by whom, and by when? And those three W’s break something down, a bigger concept, into something that you can actually schedule in your calendar and make sure it gets done in smaller steps.

Now one of the things, in another conversation, that you mentioned is that process also tends to identify when there’s additional gaps or interdependencies that we have to take into consideration. Tell me more about that.

That’s right. If we say this needs to be done, and this is the person who can do it, and this is the time frame, sometimes as we go through a list of concerns, we recognize dependencies among what needs to happen by when. And that is even more useful. You can imagine how you could actually create an action plan that really helps you get where you want to go sooner. And that, after all, is why we seek feedback. It’s to help close the gap between what we intend and the results we are actually seeing in a faster, more effective, and ultimately less painful way.

Let’s sum up. What are the things that you really want people to take away from our conversation today?

Well, founders of micro-businesses usually don’t have deep enough pockets. They literally can’t afford to learn slowly. So learning how to elicit feedback—not just from customers, but perhaps from our suppliers that we work with, from our accountants, from other people on whom we rely to have a successful business—can help us learn how to be effective faster.

There’s one more thing I really like about Benefits and Concerns. Not everybody is skilled at providing feedback. For instance, if you’re trying to get feedback from someone who has always lived with really harsh criticism, they might not feel like they’ve provided feedback until someone leaves the room ashamed. Benefits and Concerns make sure—provide enough structure without over-controlling—make sure that you hear what’s working right and should be reinforced and amplified in what you’re doing, and what can be balanced, negated, or modified to help you have the effect that you intend.

Lesson tags: learning