You’ve either heard of the closed-loop process or you haven’t. Here at SocialOptic, it’s something we incorporate into our daily working practice and we encourage our clients to do the same. Why? Because when you look at high-performing organisations you see a repeated pattern in their methods: the use of closed-loop feedback. So, what exactly is this process and how might you adopt it in your organisation?
Closed-loop feedback – a potted history
The idea of closed-loop feedback has been around for a while, but surprisingly few organisations use it. If you start looking, you’ll find there are at least a dozen different frameworks to choose from, all using different acronyms to describe what is essentially the same process. Perhaps the most famous was coined by the United States Airforce Colonel John Boyd, back in the 1970s, whose work setting out the human decision-making process, known as the OODA loop (Observe – Orient – Decide – Act), revolutionised military strategy. Then there’s PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) taken up by Toyota in the 1950s in order to improve the efficiency of their production line and reduce waste. And that’s a model based, in part, on the scientific method first set out by Francis Bacon all the way back in 1620: hypothesis-experiment-evaluation. The fundamental principal behind this scientific method, and all of the subsequent frameworks, is the need for iteration: repeating the cycle to extend knowledge and bring the user closer to their goal. In other words, rather than your working process being linear, you close the loop.
Employing the closed-loop process in your organisation
Most businesses are familiar with and, probably, without even consciously thinking about it, employ elements of the closed-loop process: they plan, then they do. A few go a step further and plan, do, then measure. We see this in particular with third sector and Non-Governmental Organisations, for example, when they want to understand what the impact of a particular campaign might have been. Very few go as far as closing the loop: measuring, observing, planning and doing, then repeating the process with another round of measurement. When they do, however – and we’ve seen this many times with our clients – the improvements are far reaching.
We touched on how the closed-loop process can make a dramatic difference to employee engagement in our earlier blog, but it works equally well for those who might want to survey their customers or other stakeholders. Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, however, you don’t necessarily need a formal survey at all; the key thing about the closed-loop process is that you are employing it because you are purposely trying to improve something. In order to do that, you need to understand what it is you’re trying to improve and, in order to do that, you need information. And, for big projects at least, in today’s world that generally means data.
The need to measure both before and after an improvement programme is though something that’s often met with resistance within companies (more on this later). So, if you’re not yet sold yourself, here are three reasons why it’s important:
- To ‘orient’ your company in the wider world. By this we mean finding out what’s happening in your industry. If you don’t know that you’re essentially operating in the dark, but by understanding your position in the market you’re shining a light on the direction you need to take. Think of it as surveying the landscape, not just doing a survey.
- To get an early lead on potential issues. Rather than focussing all your efforts on improving things that have already happened, such as why so many staff left last year, a survey can flag up potential future issues – staff feeling fed up with an initiative or how management communicates with them, for example. It’s particularly pertinent for anything customer-facing like customer service, where you want to know quickly if things are going wrong and not after the fact.
- As a control. After your first survey it’s possible you might find you’ve not measured exactly the right things and you therefore need to make a few changes to improve the accuracy or usefulness of the data (the closed-loop process in action). Here’s an example: working cultures and attitudes differ from company to company, as they do country to country. In one business or profession people might tend to be more optimistic, in another they might be pessimistic (think here of the natural and necessary difference between an enthusiastic serial entrepreneur and a more risk-averse pilot). Ask both how effective their organisation is at planning, from poor to excellent, and you might find the same ‘good’ response means entirely different things. In the optimistic company it actually means things are poor, while in the pessimistic, it’s nothing short of amazing. Repeating the survey allows you to calibrate and control for things like cultural factors, meaning you end up with a more accurate reflection of what’s going on.
What all of these reasons have in common is that by measuring first you are enabling yourself to come up with an action plan based on reality. Once you’ve made the changes in your plan, you then survey again, refine what you’re doing in your next action plan and so the cycle of improvement continues. Now, hopefully, you’re thinking all that sounds eminently sensible. So, why, in practice, do so few organisations do it?
It’s most likely down to our psychology and the fact that as individuals we grow up being very wary of the idea of measurement; just think back to those first exams which measured your capability or otherwise in a given subject. We’re trained from an early age to see measurement as being about whether we’ve passed or failed.
In a work environment it therefore takes a brave person – and often a big culture shift for the organisation they might be in charge of – to say they’re okay with being measured. It means you may need to shift the mindset from one which says failure is terrible to one which says failure is okay as long as you learn from it. As part of this it’s also important to remember – and make clear to your teams – what’s being measured is an initiative or process, not the individual.
If anything, a good closed-loop feedback system isn’t about shaking things up, it’s about creating stability. You may choose to go big and measure how on track you are for success in your five-year strategy or it might be a case of just picking up the phone to find out how everyone in a team did on a project. It could even be as simple as encouraging staff to journal, to privately note each day what the learning opportunities were and encouraging them to share that learning with others. Ultimately, what you’re trying to do is build a culture which understands and values feedback, so that everyone can both see and seize the opportunity for continuous improvement the closed loop process provides.