Continue must go first
One thing I’ve become increasingly interested in is how qualitative information is gathered, organized and disseminated across groups of people, even in simple settings like giving feedback one to one or with a team reflecting on its performance. I think the choices made in gathering this data are often knee jerk or poorly thought through (“Hey do you have a second”; “Let’s grab everyone for a quick sync”). In contrast to the rigor applied to numbers in spreadsheets, I think leaders treat this exercise too casually and this is probably because it tends to be aggregated through conversations. Seeing one cell wrong in an excel file leads to the whole thing getting discredited, which ratchets the focus of the creators to get it precisely right the first time. Unpredictable group dialogue is just not as easy to structure and synthesize so expectations tend to be lax. (And there are no keyboard shortcuts to make the work easier).
Below is a mechanism for gathering individual or team based feedback, a common type of qualitative data that is gathered every day at every company. While this model is useful, what I think is interesting is that when you start messing around with the formula, the same data can create different outputs – just like in a spreadsheet.
This simple model to focus a feedback conversation is to ask and answer three questions: what should we continue doing? what should we start doing? and what should we stop doing? It’s often framed as “Continue. Start. Stop.” This is an effective way to cover everything from a manager giving quarterly performance feedback to a leader managing a crossfunctional initiative to a new team assessing how they’re working together. Clearly, it’s not exactly computing Fractal Geometry in Nature.
I’ve participated in these meetings where the order was changed to “Start. Stop. Continue.” and a quick search of the internet leads me to believe that this is actually becoming the popular way to do it. Surprisingly, this re-ordering of the questions generates a more chaotic, less productive conversation. I’ve shared this observation with a couple of people now and they all have a similar reaction to my thesis: a mix of deep skepticism that it actually matters and being truly weirded out that this is actually something I’m expending energy on. But I’m telling you the order matters. Continue goes first. Stop must go last. Each question is interdependent and generates a different perspective, but how that perspective builds through the questions is as important as the questions themselves.
The reason why Continue is first draws from the centuries old philosophy of doctors and healers everywhere: do no harm. The first thing you should discuss when delivering feedback is what is working that we should continue. At least in doing a review of this you’ll come to agreement on what shouldn’t be messed with in a conversation where there is probably a lot to think differently about. It doesnt mean you won’t come back and change it later, but you should start by bringing this knowledge to light first.
Start goes second because, after being confirmed, an individual or a team will have a sense of what progress is being made and what is working, which is a great launching off point for brainstorming additional things to try. This expands the conversation in a way that is empowering and healthy, building on the validation that took place in the Continue phase.
Stop goes last because once you’ve figured out what is going well, and then what you want to try, you are now in the best place psychologically to address things that need to stop, or things that are broken. There is safety that has been created that allows a difficult subject to come up or an honest assessment that something should be let go.
When this Continue-Start-Stop order shifts even svbtly (BOOM!), you risk losing the creation of this positive spiral. When I see people begin with Start, I’ve noticed a consistent pattern. The conversation launches into unbounded ideation mode and stuff that is actually working well gets spun around and redesigned. While there are important conversations for when you’re looking for a whole new approach, a feedback session isn’t always that same conversation (in fact, it rarely is). People get all excited about the new ideas. When Continue comes up later in the flow, there is a mental 5 car pileup: people debate scrapping something with forward progress with new ideas that have just been generated.
Similarly, beginning with Stop, or bringing up Stop before Continue, can startle participants into defensiveness. While brainstorming can be invigorating, the absence of acknowledgement of what’s been done (e.g. Continue) on the front end can trigger an internal narrative of doubt or cast constructive criticism as an attack when someone proposes something stop happening. If there hasnt been some meeting in the middle early on, it can quickly get personal. A little bit of sweet before sour (HT/MOC) never hurts (and is not necessarily sugar coating the message).
Continue-Start-Stop has the right flow. Reinforce the good things that are happening, stretch the boundaries to increase performance and lastly edit away things that are no longer working.