Change - Strategic Facilitation

by Tony Mann

Feedback model

Change is made much easier with the application of another core model – the feedback model. Alongside the UIA=O+E it is the most powerful model in the change process. It can be considered a ‘model’ because of how powerful it is. In Uncertainty, there is a need to determine the issues, to find the real questions and to identify what the change agenda needs to address. This can be daunting and yet it is often discovered by the very act of searching for it – IF and only IF the organisation uses the feedback model.

This provides the means to

  • Ensure understanding between people
  • Check understanding during the understanding stage of change
  • ‘Climb’ out of uncertainty
  • Explore perceptions during the change process
  • Create a feedback loop so that the change agent and the change leader know that everyone has understood and is aware of all the key messages

Ensure understanding between people

Partly because of our different perceptions and partly because we think we know what the issues are, there is a strong tendency to misunderstand the message being given to the organisation by virtue of the KDs. While this would be bad enough in the normal course of events, in uncertainty, when the threat from the KDs is being uncovered, this kind of misunderstanding can be very damaging. It is particularly significant because if different people have different interpretations of what they ‘hear’, then there is the danger of schisms in understanding and consequently difficulties in trying to find ways forward. If we base our change agenda on a wrong understanding, everything from then on is likely to be misdirected. If a wrong part or raw material got into a production process, everything going down the production line would be ‘contaminated’. In the same way, false understanding can contaminate the process of producing an effective plan for change.

So what can we do? The most common things people actually do if they think that there may be misunderstanding or a lack of understanding is to

  • Ask more questions and seek answers
  • Ask everyone if they understood.

Both lead to more confusion! While questions themselves are valuable, a question can cause more misunderstanding and even conflict if it is based on a misunderstanding in the first place. Imagine someone asking for directions to the train station and yet the person being asked knows that the trains are not running because of a problem on the line. The latter might answer the question as to how to get to the station, but the information would be irrelevant.

Even worse is asking other people if they understood you. There are three potential responses: silence, because no one wants to be the one who admits that they do not understand; everyone nodding as if they do understand to divert attention away from themselves, and, occasionally, some brave soul will say that they did not understand. The dangers of receiving either of the first two responses out-weigh the possible advantage of someone admitting to confusion. Worse still, everything from then on is probably built on a false premise that there was complete awareness and understanding of the points being made.

So what can we do? What MUST we do? The answer is to give feedback and to ask for feedback.

Feedback model


  1. Misunderstanding or misinterpreting what was said
  2. Missing out some important points or some details
  3. Feeding back accurately and fully what was said
  4. Getting behind the words to the ‘hidden’ message

Giving feedback means taking the (small) risk of telling the speaker what you heard them to say. This does not mean feeding back verbatim what they said, rather it is translating it into your own words and reflecting your interpretation of what the speaker meant.

Below are the four potential outcomes of feeding back what you heard being said.

  1. You will have completely misunderstood what the speaker was saying – in which case either you were not listening (and given that you are intending to feed back, this is unlikely) or, and this is much more likely, what the person said was very difficult to understand or they themselves did not fully comprehend what they were saying. Strange as it may seem, this happens in uncertainty and extroverts particularly speak their thoughts as a way of coping with uncertainty. Often, in attempting to understand the issues, they start to articulate the question. Feeding back helps them and the organisation to begin to make sense of the problem.
  2. You have missed some points or not quite grasped all of what was being said. This often happens when an expert is speaking or there are several thoughts interwoven in the speaker’s mind. This can happen with an ‘unstructured intuitive’ (someone who thinks creatively in a diverse way) who weaves different concepts together in their mind. While the gist of what is being said can be clear, some parts may not have made sense or may not have come across clearly.
  3. You may reflect accurately what the person was saying and have grasped the points being made. In which case, there is clarity between the speaker and the receiver. Obviously, this is the desired position.
  4. You might be able to feed back what the person did not say. This does not mean that you interpret something differently nor is it a ‘political’ mechanism for interpreting something your way. Rather it means that you have ‘seen’ something that follows on from what the speaker has said, or could rightfully be inferred (in a positive) sense. This is very powerful and helps organisations make sense of uncertainty.

Therefore, we need to ask whether a ‘1’ or a ‘2’ wrong? Is it ‘bad’ to give a ‘1’ or a ‘2’ feedback? The answer, of course, is emphatically ‘No!’, unless the team is dysfunctional, in which case it will be harder to give feedback. The purpose of giving feedback is to encourage the speaker to realise that they may have not made clear what they were saying. If the situation is uncertain, then they could not help that and any feedback will benefit the group. In other circumstances, if you as an expert or specialist are speaking, then to know that you have not been fully understood gives you another opportunity to clarify your point. If the opposite happens and everyone sits there dumb and quiet when you ask ‘Did everyone understand?’, then you risk never getting your specialist point across, with the subsequent risk that the organisation makes poor decisions and you feel alienated from the organisation and the outcome.

So, why do people not feed back? Well the reason is, primarily, ignorance of the power of this model. Part of the reason is fear that they will be ridiculed for feeding back what is obvious. Part of the reason is feeling that you are taking too big a role upon yourself. Each of these reasons belongs to an organisation that does not understand or appreciate process. One of the key characteristics of a transitional organisation, one that is conscious of process, is their willingness and ability to give feedback and to work with ‘1s’ and ‘2s’ to build understanding and consensus and meaningful solutions.

So who does the feedback? The answer is ‘someone’ or ‘anyone’! In an organisation that is making the transition from ignoring process to beginning to recognise its value ‘someone’ will hopefully feedback. In an organisation that has become fully aware of process, ‘anyone’ will take it upon themselves to feedback. In a dysfunctional organisation, no one will risk feeding back and the process aware manager/facilitator will be left to do it.

So what are the mechanics of this simple yet profoundly effective model, which can be used in any situation to ensure clarity of understanding? The responder uses words like ‘So if I understand you correctly... you are saying that…?’

These words and other phrases help lead into asking the person if what you are feeding back is what they were saying or meant to say. Invariably, in my experience, people respond extremely positively to feedback. It makes them feel as though someone was actually listening.

It makes them realise if they are or are not making sense, and this is fine because everyone wants to be understood and make their point articulately.

‘So what you’re saying is....’
‘If I understand....’
‘My understanding is that....’
‘Can I just check what you’re saying...’

‘I think that you’re saying that...’

Check understanding during the understanding stage of change

Then there is the opportunity for reverse feedback, which means that you ask the other person to feedback to you! This is very powerful because it ensures that the other person has understood what you are saying. Its use is not confined to meetings; the model can be very effectively used during the understanding stage of change.

If the leadership team have identified the context for change, the first stage in participative change is to cascade that knowledge to the rest of the organisation. This can be done in a number of ways, the more creative and interactive the better. The change agent should ensure that, at each point in the transfer of knowledge and information, the ‘room’ gives feedback to the leadership team on what they are hearing. This is a powerful process. Imagine that there are 150 people in the room. They have all listened to the presentation about the external factors and the key drivers. It is essential that the message has been received and. understood.

Climb out of uncertainty

The feedback model can be extremely useful when trying to ‘climb’ out of uncertainty. A leadership team should allow themselves plenty of time to talk around the issues and in so doing to identify the ‘real’ problem and the scenario which the organisation is facing. No one has the monopoly on understanding the situation, and by feeding back to each other over several meetings there will be a growing sense of awareness and recognition of the true nature of the situation.

Explore perceptions during the change process

It is essential that people explore their perceptions during the change process. It is by reflecting back what people have said that everyone begins to see the reality of the situation and starts to see what needs to change. This feedback process needs to be built into the overall change process as a mechanism for clarifying what is happening.