Want Better Feedback? Ask Better Questions!

What can we ask during this retro that’s more specific, targeted, and relevant?


Calvin Bushor

2 years ago | 5 min read

Imagine that you are hosting your team’s end of sprint retro. This is a sacred team ceremony where you celebrate your wins, learn from your losses, and identify the truth behind what’s going right and what can be improved upon.

The team just finished clapping enthusiastically and high-fiving at the end of the celebration and shout-out portion of the meeting. You transition the team into the feedback section of the retro and you ask, “What feedback do you all have?” Crickets. You muster up some courage and ask again but in a different way, “How do you think this sprint went?” This time, you hear someone say, “Good.” Wow, useful!

Now, imagine yourself in a one-on-one with a team member on your team. You spend the first half of the meeting learning about each other. Your likes. Dislikes. Family. The weather is usually popular to talk about. But, you’re there to go deeper, to find ways that you can be a better leader and help them and the team.

You gently transition away from the commonalities conversation and ask, “What feedback do you have for me?” The team member looks at you for a moment before they say, “Um, nothing right now. I’ll have to think about it and get back to you.”

As a leader, these feedback sessions can feel like pulling teeth. You continuously seek feedback but are often met with blank stares, silence, and responses that make things seem better than you know they really are. You try over and over but continue to struggle to get useful information from your team that can help you as a leader find opportunities to help them.

Solution — Ask Better Questions!

The questions I listed above are open-ended questions that don’t have much relative context and are boring. As leaders, we get what we give. We get poor responses when we ask poor questions.

Instead, we need to practice asking more specific and targeted questions that are relevant and engaging. The more relevant context our questions have, the more engaged our team will be and the likelihood of drawing out a response from them is much higher.

Let’s put it to practice!

During our team retro, instead of asking an open-ended question like, “What feedback do you all have?” We should ask something more specific, targeted, and relevant.

The retro scenario

Let’s say that the team just launched a new product feature in their app. The team launched it on time but there were some bugs and client feedback once the feature was live. The team was excited that they hit the deadline but you know it wasn’t without sacrifice and some negative client impact.

What can we ask during this retro that’s more specific, targeted, and relevant?

Let’s instead ask, “What decisions did we make to help us hit our target date?” This question is juicy because it opens the door to some real feedback. That’s why we’re here though, right? We might hear, “We worked nights and weekends.”

Or, “We cut some corners and left out some testing as part of this release.” This question is specific, it emphasizes one experience the team had. It’s targeted because you know that this might be a hot topic for the team. It’s also relevant because the team just experienced this in the last sprint.

With this approach, we dramatically reduce the ocean of topics to discuss and point everyone’s brains in one direction. Instead of thinking about all the possible pieces of feedback, I may have, as a team member, I put all of my energy into thinking about one category of feedback. We focused on the topic and opened the door to something we have an inkling the team wants to talk about.

As leaders, we need to be courageous with our questions. We shouldn’t ask questions that hide the dirt. What I mean by this is, too often, I see leaders sneak by the scary questions and only focus on easy questions that feel more positive and less critical.

In the scenario above, where we all know the elephant in the room is related to how we hit our date and the side effects of this achievement, if we choose to not focus on it, our teams will see through it and lose respect in our leadership.

When we are brave and choose to focus on this “elephant,” our teams will see that we are serious about learning from our experiences so that we can improve as a team. This will earn respect from our teams. This will earn trust with our teams. The strength of our questions helps us be better leaders for our teams. Be bold, ask the scary questions!

The one-on-one scenario

Let’s say that you are in a one-on-one with a team member who was critical in this recent launch that we described above. You know that this person put in a lot of extra time and effort into the release of this new feature. You’ve heard from others that this team member may be frustrated with their experience of this past launch and want to dig in and see how you can help.

What can we ask this team member that’s more targeted, specific, and relevant?

Before, we may have asked, “What feedback do you have for me?” When I hear leaders asking this and then share with me that they are not getting any feedback from their teams does not surprise me.

Instead, let’s try asking this team member, “How do you think the launch of our recent feature went?” It’s much more specific because it’s highlighting one event instead of being open-ended. It’s again, more targeted because we know we’ve heard that this team member may have feedback. It’s also relevant because this team member recently experienced it.

When we ask a question like this, don’t be surprised if the team member opens up and vents. This is a good thing because we do not want them to carry this weight, we want them to get it off their chest. They might share that others on the team didn’t carry their weight.

They might be angry with you and how you made the teamwork nights and weekends. They might yell. They might cry. All of this is okay because part of our job is to give our team members an outlet so that they can focus their energy on being the best version of themselves.

When we choose to ignore asking these hard questions, our team members can start to feel as if we don’t care. When we choose to ask these hard questions and then acknowledge and listen to what our team members have to say, we earn credibility.

Ask better questions. Get better feedback!

Today, we learned that we need to be specifictargeted, and relevant to our questions if we want better responses from our team. We need to be bold with our questions and be fearless by shining light on the scary things because we are here to help our teams. We can’t help them if we hide behind open-ended and broad questions. Let’s be better leaders and start asking better questions!


Created by

Calvin Bushor

Technologist, leader, writer, and I created to help new tech leaders be better leaders and build awesome dev teams! #LeadershipLife







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