Clarifying Problems / Effective Feedback




Good problem clarification and feedback isn’t optional for winning teams. If you can’t learn and improve from your missteps, you’ll end up beaten by the teams who can. Over 80% of managers fail to give timely, helpful, and adequate feedback. This is a primary cause for many businesses and people failing to fulfill their potential. If your speed of growth outstrips your speed of learning, you’re just setting yourself up for more problems than you can address, eventually destroying the business.

If you want to be a fast-learning, fast-growing organization, you must prioritize practicing the steps outlined here, and give feedback frequently (no less than once a week, preferably when the problem occurs).

If you don’t do that, you are prioritizing your habits and comfort above winning and excellence.

Before getting into the process, here are some key principles to keep in mind when you’re giving feedback:

  • You’re here to help. Giving good feedback in a timely manner HELPS people. When you provide good, timely feedback, you help people improve and achieve their potential.

  • You aren’t there to judge your teammates. You are there to get in sync on the facts so you can either improve or move on. The more you can remove judgment, stick to the facts, and get in sync, the more helpful you can be.

  • You are reviewing PROBLEMS, not CONCLUSIONS. Problems happen when there is a specific outcome that is either above or below expectations. Don’t wait until problems pile up into conclusions. Conclusions are almost always confused, and never good feedback.

  • Look at the good as often as the bad. Review “Good Problems” (outcome better than expected) just as often as “Bad Problems” (outcome worse than expected). Good feedback on good problems builds strengths, confidence, and advantages.

With these principles in mind, here is a basic process for clarifying the problem at hand and providing feedback on it.

Big-picture goal: Every problem can be framed as a gap between reality and expectations. Most managers make the mistake of leaving general feedback (this was good, this was bad), rather than taking the time to get clear on what actually happened and where they and others may have gotten out of sync. Therefore, the goal of a good clarification/feedback check is for all parties to come out of it in sync on: 

  1. What both parties were expecting

  2. What actually happened

  3. Why the gap occurred

  4. What great looks like

  5. What to do next


Step 0: Set context

Most people get defensive when investigating a problem they were involved in or frustrated when they see someone not performing the way they want. While you can’t avoid this entirely, it helps to step back before exploring any problem and reminding everyone involved (including yourself) that:

  • The process is about clarity, not blame.

  • You want to understand what happened so everyone can get better.

  • If they’re not in a headspace to openly explore what happened, then they need to let you know and propose another time in the near future.


Step 1: Sync on expectations

Goal: Check that you and the other person were holding the same picture of what you were expecting. 

  • Identify the issue to be discussed in terms of the goal to be accomplished (e.g., “I want to clarify some confusion I have around our recent marketing push”).

  • For the issue at hand, ask them:

    • How they were holding the goal

    • How they understood the play (especially what role they were expected to play)

    • What behaviors each of you expect from someone playing that role (e.g., if you own a goal, you’ll look for other ways to accomplish it if problems come up, or immediately escalate)

  • Check for any gaps here before moving on to step 2. Often, misalignment on upfront expectations is the root cause of downstream issues. If that’s the case, then the key problem to address is HOW the two of you got out of sync to begin with.


Step 2: Identify what happened

Goal: Get a clear picture of what actually happened before jumping to conclusions. 

  • Ask them, “What happened with (outcome that went differently than what either of us expected)?” 

  • Get evidence, not opinions. When someone gives you an opinion (e.g., “this is WHY I believe this happened”), gently redirect back to WHAT happened.

  • Repeat back to the person the facts you heard and any unknowns. If the two of you are in sync on WHAT happened (not WHY), move on to the next step.


Step 3: Explore why the gap occurred

Goal: Establish a shared understanding of how the gap occurred. 

Key thing to remember: It’s not about establishing fault (or finding an excuse). The starting assumption is that the gap is a product of confusion—that you’re out of sync somewhere, and the goal is to figure out where to ensure alignment moving forward.

  • Look for common confusion points:

    • The game (i.e., out of sync on the vision for winning)

    • The goal(s)

    • The play (who’s doing what and how the process is supposed to work)

    • The culture (how do we behave around here?)

  • Keep asking clarifying questions until you have their perspective clearly in your mind.

  • Test yourself: Can you repeat back their perspective on the problem to them?

  • Then it’s your turn: Describe your perspective on the problem in terms of what you saw happen. Let them ask questions so they can fill in their picture.

  • Ask the other person: What do you think I am missing?

Example: “We need you to deliver your projects on time for us to build trust with our customers. And we have a culture of keeping our commitments. We agree on those two things. And we agree that the report wasn’t on time. So, the performance gap I see is that you didn’t respect the culture and didn’t meet your commitments. Is there anything I’m missing?”


Step 4: Reset to what great looks like

Goal: Once you’re in sync with the other person about the problem, you need to get in sync about what great looks like—your expectation for the right approach to their work that would have prevented the problem in the first place.

  • Lay out your vision for how this would have gone differently that you think would have been more effective.

  • Then ask, “What’s your visualization? What do you believe good performance would look like in this situation?”

  • Once you have both heard and understood each other’s perspective, get in sync on which vision is more likely to lead to more scoring, more wins, more championships.

  • Remember, there are times when the other person’s visualization may be better. Be radically open to that. This is how you improve as well.

Example: Owning a goal and respecting commitments means proactively keeping everyone else in the loop on any issues related to that goal. If you were going to miss the deadline, great looks like advising everyone who depends on the report before you miss the deadline. That didn’t happen.


Step 5: Get clear on next steps

Goal: Establish a practical design change to address the issue. Any version of “I’ll try harder” is unlikely to succeed—it has to be a structural change.

  • Repeat your understanding of the gap and what great looks like. Ask the other person for ideas on how to ensure they close the gap moving forward.

  • Share your ideas.

  • Finalize a commitment (and refer back to it in future feedback).

  • How is the above process the same or different from how you currently give feedback?

  • How often do you currently give feedback to those you work with?

  • Can you remember times in the past that you’ve received or given feedback in a way that felt like a shared exploration, rather than a battle? 

  • What helps you get into that mindset of shared exploration?

  • Note at least three times this week that something you experienced didn’t match what you were expecting (either for better or worse).

  • Pick a gap where something went worse than expected, and explore it with a colleague involved in that gap this week (at least once). The problem can be large or small; the important thing is to try. 

Remember, the process includes:

  • 0 – Setting context.

  • 1 – Syncing on expectations.

  • 2 – Identify what happened.

  • 3 – Explore the gap.

  • 4 – Reset to what great looks like.

  • 5 – Get clear on next steps.

  • Try the process again, with a better-than-expected example (positive feedback).


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