The missing link in your leadership: Build meaningful feedback loops – Smartbrief

The missing link in your leadership: Build meaningful feedback loops – Smartbrief

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Feedback loops illustration
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Last year, I was hired by an entrepreneur with a modest but growing business out of the East Coast.

Let’s call him John.

John is a well-intentioned leader, dead set on doing the right thing, but like many bootstrapped business owners, he was also in a constant battle with his time and resources.

Our work together spanned a number of issues, but each was connected by one consistent, overwhelming theme: The need for quality information.

After a few months of working together, John started sharing frustrations he had with one of his team members. Unfortunately, John’s understanding of the situation was pretty limited; he simply recognized a problem existed.

He had no pulse on the situation, no clarity on the problem, no sense of what could be causing these issues and no understanding of how to move forward.

John was in the dark. And he blamed it on his team.

After all, couldn’t he safely assume that relevant, meaningful and useful information would automatically make its way to him? Wasn’t that a given — something to be expected without intentional oversight?

Unfortunately, no. Receiving quality information isn’t a given, and it’s a major leadership mistake to assume so.

However, it’s a mistake that can easily be rectified by implementing a well-structured feedback loop.

What is a feedback loop?

If you google the definition of a “feedback loop,” you’ll find this definition from Cambridge Dictionary:

(noun) a system for improving a product, process, etc. by collecting and reacting to users’ comments.

Although this definition is accurate to how feedback loops tend to function within organizations, it’s incredibly limiting for any meaningful leadership to take place for two reasons:

  1. The restrictive nature of focusing only on users: Instead, I’d suggest a broader scope that focuses on all your stakeholders. Examples may include team members, partners, investors, clients, peers, etc.
  2. Personal assumptions that can come with the word “improvement”: Feedback loops are not inherently negative. You’re simply looking for quality information that helps you solve specific problems.

For clarity’s sake, let’s use this definition of “feedback loop” moving forward:

“A system designed to collect quality information from key stakeholders that helps you solve a specific problem.”

Why leaders need feedback loops

I don’t need to tell you that leaders face no shortage of problems and challenges to overcome. And in order to conquer those obstacles, one pressing requirement will continually present itself: the need for consistent and quality information.

After all, every strong strategy and every smart decision requires an informed understanding of the landscape.

When structured well, feedback loops become a superpower for the dedicated leader, allowing you to

  • Get a consistent stream of meaningful information
  • Make more informed decisions
  • Spark team communication around key issues
  • Solve better problems
  • Spot potential opportunities or issues
  • Empathize with team struggles out of your reach
  • Duplicate these advantages across your organization

Best of all, they’re completely free to build!

Keeping an open mind and embracing a creative approach to building feedback loops will help you maximize the benefits.

Now, you may be tempted to ask the question, “Why not create one feedback loop for all problems?”

I get that this approach may be appealing to you, and on the surface, it seems to be more efficient. But in all practicality, it tends to muddy the information waters and cause leaders to feel trapped in a never-ending wave of chaotic communication they don’t know what to do with. This inevitably leads to a tremendous waste of time and resources that ultimately results in the abandonment of feedback loops.

This isn’t to say that you should ignore feedback that makes its way to you outside of a structured loop. By all means, use that feedback to fill out any gaps.

That said, my recommendation is to create as many feedback loops as you need to keep the type of information you’re receiving organized and crystal-clear. Then, equipped with all the context you need, you can synthesize the data and make strategic decisions based on the multiple information streams you’ve established.

Now that you understand the importance of feedback loops to your leadership, let’s take a look at how these feedback loops get triggered to begin with.

2 types of triggers

A feedback loop can be triggered in two ways:

  1. Event-triggered feedback loops
  2. Operationally triggered feedback loops

The primary difference between them is that event-triggered feedback loops take place when something unpredictable happens that requires a leader’s immediate attention or involvement.

Operationally triggered feedback loops are built into the operating system of the business to ensure a consistent cadence of quality information to aid in achieving goals and solving problems.

Your team’s implementation of both types of feedback loops will look very similar with only one distinct exception: Urgency.

An event-triggered feedback loop generally comes with a sense of urgency (i.e. an unhappy customer’s complaint; a team member with an important family matter etc). As a general rule, event-triggered feedback loops operate on expedited timelines.

In contrast, operationally triggered feedback loops are set by your predetermined communication frequency and should (mostly) eliminate the need for urgent communication.

The anatomy of a meaningful feedback loop

Any meaningful feedback loop is comprised of the following three components:

  1. Reason: The problem you’re trying to solve.
  2. Route: A step-by-step system your team takes to get this information into the hands of the right leader within the right time frame.
  3. Response: A step-by-step system the leader follows to provide a response to his/her team within the right time frame.

How to build meaningful feedback loops

With those three components in mind, let’s dive a bit deeper into each one and connect the three to create a complete feedback loop.


  1. Write down the problem you are trying to solve. Keep it clear and concise.
  2. Identify three to five questions that you need answered to help you solve that problem. Ask yourself, “If I had the answers to these hypothetical three to five questions, would I be able to make the informed decisions I need?”
  3. Figure out where that information can be found. Is it within your organization already or does it need to be gathered externally?
  4. Identify key stakeholders involved. Who is closest to this information? Who does it need to touch on its way to the leader? Who does it impact?


  • Map out initial action steps. What information needs to go to which team member(s)? Does the trigger require an immediate acknowledgment?
  • Set time-based deadlines. When should that information be expected to arrive?
  • Document it. Is this documented in a way in which someone else could read it and apply it?


  • Map out initial action steps. What information needs to go to which team member(s)? Does the trigger require an immediate acknowledgment?
  • Set time-based deadlines. When should that information be expected to arrive?
  • Document it. Is this documented in a way in which someone else could read it and apply it?

You’ll quickly notice that “route” and “response” have the exact same building blocks. This is intentional. The response will look very different than the route once documented, but the steps for building a quality response are the same as they are for building a quality route.

Ideas to get you started

I encourage you to get creative when you’re building feedback loops, but don’t let yourself get distracted from the problem.

Here is a list of common opportunities to easily integrate feedback loops into your business:

  • Team-building exercises
  • Built into weekly one-on-ones with direct reports
  • Department debriefs
  • Automated notifications and alerts
  • Team meetings
  • Onboarding
  • Exit interviews
  • Getting a roundup of comments, reviews and complaints at regular intervals
  • Team retreats

Please make note that feedback loops may not be the best way to solve your problem in every instance. Make sure you align the effort with the real issue.

Best practices

Here are a few basic guidelines I’ve found to be helpful over the years.

  • Don’t take a good thing too far. For instance, 400 feedback loops isn’t useful.
  • Exercise transparency with your team so they’re on the same page.
  • Only involve those you need to so you’re not wasting resources.
  • Fit it into your circumstance and situation.

Final thoughts

Leaders can and should use feedback loops to get constant, near-real-time insights into how to solve better problems and make better decisions. However, those feedback loops must be adapted to the organization’s and leader’s specific needs, preferences and challenges in order to be effective.

Mike Allen is a serial entrepreneur, business coach and marketing subject-matter expert. Allen is the founder and CEO of Podcast Post Production and Solo Social Marketing, where he helps small businesses turn purpose into profit. 

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March 25, 2022 at 03:27PM

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Dr. Sharon Lamm-Hartman