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How To Give Feedback In Areas Outside Your Discipline

By 28/05/2019 September 15th, 2021 No Comments

In this article, I show you how to give feedback that’s effective and useful to the subject matter experts on your team, even if you don’t have domain expertise.

Think back to your first days as a project manager. You probably walked into your new office, wide-eyed and nervous, knowing you were about to take on a job with a lot of responsibility. Hopefully you were a bit excited, too.

Very early on, you may have discovered one of the central pillars to being an effective PM is mastering communication—written, verbal, and non-verbal.

Your ability to motivate your team, distill complicated technical requirements into an easily digestible form, maintain fruitful client relationships, and tactfully handle difficult conversations would be key to your success.

This will hold true throughout your entire PM career. However, the longer you spend working in digital, you’ll find a natural next step is getting comfortable and confident giving feedback in areas outside of your discipline. Not only does you team benefit from a versatile player with knowledge in a variety of different practices, but you provide a unique perspective given your leadership role.

How To Give Feedback In Areas Outside Your Discipline

There’s a nuance to every aspect and approach to giving effective feedback. Here are some of the most important things to remember when you need to give feedback outside of your discipline:

1. Set Yourself Up In An Informed Position

You have to wear a lot of hats as a PM (you can check out Viget’s PM careers page for some examples), but serving both as a sounding board for ideas and a final check on design, development, or data decisions is only effective if you’re very familiar with the product and the client’s business goals. “Knowledge is power,” after all.

The other aspect of this isn’t as clear-cut. As a project manager, you likely have a fondness or familiarity with one or two disciplines more than others. I used to work as a front-end developer. I’m passionate about it, and I feel more comfortable submitting QA feedback and potential solutions than a PM with a sales, design, or marketing background might be. I wish I could speak to all of our service areas with expertise, but that’s tough, and I’d be spread pretty thin.

Branching out, there are plenty of other disciplines such as engineering, business development, marketing, data, and creative. You will have team members responsible for the execution within each of these, but it’s reasonable for you to gain a more rounded understanding of them the closer you get to the work. If you’re interested, Suze Haworth wrote a useful article to get you started building some technical skills that come in really handy for project managers working in software and digital.

In summary, you can inform yourself by leaning into a few of these disciplines (as long as you don’t forgo your core project management responsibilities!) We all want to make as great of an end product as possible—you can only do that by having an appropriate level of understanding of all roles within a project, and how they work in tandem. They’re not mutually exclusive—your professional interests will shine through regardless and benefit the project.

2. Prepare To Take All Team Member Opinions Seriously

You never know when a seemingly small issue could spiral into an earth-shattering apocalypse (not really, but you get my point.) Each team member is closest to their specific responsibility on the project, meaning they are probably more attuned than you are to spotting a red flag. After all, the purpose of feedback is to unearth important details that will inform your future decisions.

Apart from your responsibility to work with the team and the client to resolve issues, you should use this opportunity to figure out where things went wrong. If the team member is working at a pace that’s slower than planned, ask them where they feel the most pressure. There are always things you can do to ease their burden and steps you can take to resolve it. For example, you can:

  • bring in someone else to pair;
  • loop in someone more senior to help evaluate the approach they’ve taken;
  • try to reserve extra hours for that person in subsequent weeks;
  • or have a discussion around prioritization for the remaining features with the client.

Interactions like this are another good time to bring up the client’s goals and what they’re trying to achieve with this project. I’ve found there are instances when someone is spending a disproportionate amount of time on a less significant feature, a backlog item or trying to achieve 100 percent of a solution when 90 percent is more than enough. Identify those gaps in your communication, if they exist.

You want your whole team to be heard, which means you have to cultivate an environment that emphasizes transparency with open lines of communication for providing feedback.

This will help mitigate some of these risks, and ultimately lead to fewer situations where you find yourself scrambling for solutions instead of planning ahead for them.

3. Plan For Different Responses From Your Team

As a PM, you probably consider yourself to have a high emotional intelligence. (It’s okay, don’t be bashful.) This comes in very handy when you need to give feedback—it’s up to you to relate in a way that’s productive for each individual team member.

You’ll get to know how everyone internalizes constructive criticism the more you work with them. Some people respond to tough love. Some benefit more from a motivational interaction. And some feel like praise validates their work (totally fair, but definitely avoid resorting to the shit sandwich).

At the same time, you’re working with professionals. They can take feedback. Don’t sacrifice by muddying the message you’re trying to get across.

4. Don’t Devalue Your Feedback

As the person closest to the client, you have a unique perspective. Don’t couch it with, “Well, I’m no expert, but…” Have confidence in your opinion.

While your teammates are the specialists, you can simulate the client’s and/or the end user’s point of view best. This allows you to facilitate critical thinking on key decisions. PMs who have an opinion on what’s being presented provide a lot of value. Don’t write off the importance of feedback—and that includes your own.

5. Establish Forums For All Team Members To Provide Feedback

Don’t use design reviews or demos to slap your teammate on the wrist if they’ve created something that is going to put you over budget or won’t meet the client’s expectations. Have that conversation after you’ve established that the goals of the product are met, and the deliverables are understood. A few opportunities to standardize a feedback process are:

  • in standups;
  • in iteration sessions;
  • and by getting developers involved as early as possible.

It’s not usually a good idea to bring up scope or budget in these conversations. In most cases, your team is aware, and they haven’t created a beautiful thing that will require a monstrous effort and kill the budget.

6. Provide Examples And Materials To Illustrate Your Points

Include examples, documentation, and other helpful references in your feedback. This can certainly take many forms and depends on the information you have available, but it’s a good idea to think holistically about the product and the project at all times. If you’re at a point where you’re giving feedback, your team has already done the legwork. The next step is on you to get the deliverable to a place where the client will feel comfortable with it.

7. Be Direct—But Not Presumptuous

I guarantee you don’t know everything that’s gone into your team member’s decisions. Everyone on your team knows the goal is to create something that’s useful for the client. The best use of time when everyone is together in a room is to level set on that and give a gut check on how a design or demo is shaping up and working towards the client’s business goals.

Having different perspectives in the room will go a long way towards a more well-rounded product and an efficient workflow.

8. Aim For A Solution (Not The Same As Perfection!)

Designers may be constrained by the assets they’re supplied or the brand guidelines they have to work within. Developers have limitations based on preselection into the languages they use.

These things are realities. It’s not easy to suss them out in the sales process, so you will inevitably find yourself in a place where you have to change the scope or have conversations around prioritization. Just because you’re giving and receiving feedback doesn’t mean you’ll be able to answer every question and fix every problem.

Don’t get flustered—if you’ve discussed all possible solutions with your team, and there is truly no fix, you’ve done everything in your power. Go have that conversation with the client. Now is when that emotional intelligence will come in handy.

9. Remember That You May Be Wrong

One of the best interviews I ever went on was for a marketing position with a government relationship management product company. My last interview was with the CEO. The stigma that often comes with being a CEO can be intimidating—they have very high expectations, they have strong opinions, etc. (by the way, these are not bad things; they help to run a company efficiently).

In this case, the CEO was deferential. He was upfront about how he was not an expert in marketing—that was going to be me, so how was he qualified to give me advice on applying the hard skills of my job? He could lend his opinion, sure. But he was not going to dictate.

I thought that was a great attitude. It immediately give me the sense that this company embodied employee empowerment, which was one of the top things on my wish list.

There’s no reason you can’t bring this same point of view to your projects. I certainly try to.

For example, have you ever been offering a development critique without thinking about the technical debt? I have, on many occasions. But that’s okay—it’s not your job to think about granular development details, but it is important that you create an environment where your team feels comfortable voicing that, and working together to find a solution.

10. Work In Some Constructive Praise

This whole post has talked about constructive criticism. However, another vital part of effective leadership is constructive praise. Most relevant to this situation is the very first sentence in this article: “Getting feedback from your coworkers is scary.” This can certainly be true… but you, as the PM, can change that.

Examples Of Giving Feedback To Colleagues

Here are a couple examples of smart and not-so-smart ways to give good feedback:

  • A good question: “Can you show me how you’ve taken into account recent client decision X? If not, how does that play into the existing architecture and logic you’ve set up?”
  • A bad question: “Why didn’t you incorporate X?”
  • A good question: “I’m wondering if there’s enough context on this page—the client mentioned their users aren’t clear on what their organization does. Can you show me how you addressed that? Here’s how another project did it that worked well and might be applicable here.
  • A bad question: “How does this address what the client wanted?”

Notice that both Good Questions™ provide justification and rationale behind your feedback, reference the client’s perspective, and encourage your team members to think through the problem and solution. Oftentimes, as they’re stepping through their thought process, they’ll come across something on their own they didn’t consider. Or, they might provide some clarity that addresses your concerns. Make sure you’re giving specific things here, and not providing just general critiques.

If you don’t feel like their answers sufficiently addresses your concerns, suggest concrete steps you can take to work through the problem together.

When we have a small budget or timeline, we have a tendency to become so focused on going top to bottom with explanations. When PMs see those things, we should prod to surface answers on the execution decisions that have been made. Try to ask about the why behind everything relevant.

What Are Your Tips For Giving Good Feedback?

If you follow the steps above, the next time you’re in a situation where you have to give tough feedback to a colleague, you shouldn’t have a problem conveying your message, creating a runway for them to find a practical solution, and maintaining (or enhancing) that relationship.

So, what are your ideas? I’d love to hear your tricks of the trade—comment below and share your strategies with the DPM community.

Ryan Schaefer

Ryan Schaefer

Ryan is a project manager at Viget, a digital agency headquartered in the DC metro area specializing in software, web, and native design and development. He previously worked in public relations, and has a background in front-end development. He has a variety of high-profile brands under his belt, including Dole Foods, Marvel, Pixar, and Disney. You can connect with him at https://ryanjschaefer.com/.

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