MadLib Feedback

How Medium is using narrative MadLibs to make feedback more relevant + actionable, and the process more human-centered.

few tech companies our size — and even those 10x bigger — facilitate any meaningful type of feedback. Yikes.

We knew an off-the-shelf system wouldn’t work, so we designed one ourselves.

Five (Not-So-Surprising) Guiding Principles

Informed by our research, personal experience, and some inspiration, we came up with five guiding principles:

  1. Explicit Expectations. If expectations for what people are accountable for aren’t explicit, how are they supposed to know what to do and be measured against? Clearly articulate expectations.
  2. Build for the Long Haul. Continuity from one review to the next is necessary over time to make it relevant, credible, and truly growth-oriented. Stitch them together over time, like a narrative that unfolds.
  3. Guided, Not Dictated: People respect feedback from peers, while wanting guidance on what they should/shouldn’t focus on from managers. Source from both peers + managers, but the manager guides.
  4. Goals Matter. Goal-setting is actually important, not a throw-away or something to be rigged (unless managers fear what happens when their people succeed, or their people are afraid of failure — in which cases there may be bigger problems to contend with). Obvious, right?

people don’t artificially separate personal and professional growth in themselves, so why shouldn’t we bring them together in their feedback process?

The Why (+ What) of MadLibs

For those who don’t know, MadLibs is a fill-in-the-blank game started in 1953. I used MadLibs in my time at IDEO as a tool in business development conversations and saw others at IDEO using them for ad hoc feedback.

  1. Easier to Synthesize Patterns + Identify Outliers: Standardized fill-in-the-blank answers enable us to line up reviewers’ responses next to one another, recognize and distill patterns, and easily identify the outliers (which we are able to either dismiss or probe more deeply on).

Five Steps, Three Parts: The Story of Gabe

OK, so how do we do this? We begin by setting up a Google Doc (or a Medium post) for everyone being reviewed, and dub it their “story.”

  1. Step Two / Fill-in-the-Blank + Synthesis: Frank, who fills the role of Performance Guidance (a role we have in our People Ops group), sends out the MadLibs to the reviewers, and subsequently synthesizes the responses into a coherent, compelling compilation.
  2. Step Three / Let’s Talk About It: Naureen (manager) and Frank (People Ops) together sit down with Gabe for ~30 minutes to talk him through the feedback, get reactions, and begin to discuss what’s ahead. Naureen gives her take on it (“I like the suggestion to grow empathy skills, and wouldn’t pay as much attention to developing your JS chops”), and at the end of the conversation Frank shares the Google Doc (viewing rights only) with Gabe so he can always have access.
  3. Step Four / Goal-Setting Time: Gabe has the next two weeks to develop stretch goals for himself, which come in the form of personal OKR’s. He needs help and looks to others (including Naureen, but also his friend Dan in engineering) to help him out.
  4. Step Five / Closing Out Chapter One: Naureen, Gabe and Frank sit down one more time for 15-30 minutes to tweak OKRs and finalize Chapter One of The Story of Gabe.
  1. Synthesized MadLibs. This is the meat of the matter, typically netting out at ~500-700 words. To make it constructive takes time, and this is where People Ops (typically HR, Performance Management, or Talent in other orgs) delivers real value — by holding an objective perspective while saving everyone else time to synthesize a meaningful narrative.
  2. Goal-Setting (OKRs). Gabe sets 2-4 Objectives and 3-5 Key Results per Objective, intended to help him look ahead. They can range from personally-oriented (e.g., develop presentation skills) to more organizationally focused (e.g., develop Medium’s human-centered research capability) — it’s up to him, with input from Naureen and anyone else whose opinion he values. Nothing groundbreaking here, but to do it well takes the right touch.

Let Them Opt-In

At Medium, everyone’s manager has the autonomy to choose how they give their people feedback, if at all. And most of our managers believe in regular 1:1's in order to do it early, often and honestly. We also run debriefs after each project, which always include reflection on what worked well, where there were tensions, and what to focus on in the future. So MadLibs supplement + systematize much of what’s already happening on an ongoing basis.

PS for HR + Friends

If you’ve read this far, and you’re in HR or talent development, there’s one key take-away I’ll leave you with.

Stop being a process-driven administrator, and start designing action-oriented systems rooted in the needs of your people.

Whatever you end up creating, chances are, it’s better than what they’ve got now.

father of daughters. portfolio services + marketing @obviousvc.

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