How We Built A Feedback Culture: Using Tacos, Burgers, And Sushi!
I joined Board of Innovation as People & Culture Lead six months ago. I had already worked in ‘Human Resources’ for ten years. I knew from experience that most people hate feedback at work. And why wouldn’t they?
It’s often limited to the yearly (and generally dreaded) performance review. Even then, feedback may be used as a ‘weapon’ to justify a lack of a wage increase or promotion, or to engage in office politics. None of these are true drivers of growth—for either people or companies.
On the other hand, studies confirm that feedback works best when it’s frequent, immediate, concrete, and served in small portions. When you think about it, this is how we naturally give feedback to children—because our purpose is to help them grow. Imagine if we only had twice-yearly sit-downs with our children to discuss things like taking off shoes in the hallway, cleaning their plate, saying ‘Thank you’ properly, and so on. That seems stupid, right?
So when I joined the company, I was happy to find an organization strongly focused on building a direct-feedback culture.
“Feedback is the breakfast of champions” is a quote attributed to Ken Blanchard. Well, when I started at Board of Innovation, I noticed an important part of their feedback culture actually revolved around food, often expressed in emojis:
- tacos ?
- burgers ?
- sushi ?
Emojis were invented in Japan to express emotions otherwise hard or risky to express in person. They help us communicate with others about something emotionally complex or hard to deal with. That’s exactly the point of the symbols: each represents a way to deliver feedback. This simple practice helped us build a feedback culture we couldn’t have done only via a performance scoring mechanism.
When I joined, I was introduced to tacos very quickly. Board of Innovation had already used them for a few years. The practice was ingrained in our daily work.
On our Slack we have a plugin that allows us to give tacos to each other (shout out to HeyTaco!). Colleagues give each other a virtual taco to congratulate or thank them. This has spread beyond Slack. At monthly team meetings we have “taco-time” when we give credit to others for the wins of the month. A few weeks ago, I found a paper-folded taco on my desk. I took it as an anonymous appreciation note.
I think our tacos are incredibly valuable. However, at some point, our “taco-culture” contributed to conflict-avoidance. In other words, while we were very happy to give appreciation, we were less comfortable with conflict and disagreement. ‘Raise the bar’ is one of our core values. We needed to focus on constructive criticism too!
So burgers came in.
The meat here represents the criticism we have of someone (the beef as it were). The bun represents the silver lining you use to cushion your critique.
Speaking in terms of burgers allows colleagues to package comments as a balance of meat and buns. Some people prefer frank, direct and very clear constructive feedback (“Forget the buns, just give me meat.”). Others like cushioned feedback—with lots of bread. If the message is mixed, this metaphor helps us to be explicit: “What’s the meat you’re giving me?”
This is my all-time-favorite. It was introduced by two colleagues, Giorgio & Nick in a Hack My Week challenge. Sushi is raw fish, and here represents the raw feedback we give each other. That could sound harsh. But it works well in the context of sushi. It emphasizes that the feedback is given with nothing but good intentions. It helps people who are conflict-avoidant, or who find it hard to be direct. The aim of the sushi is to show it isn’t meant to hurt anyone, but rather to suggest areas of potential growth—for both the person and the company.
In online conversations, we add a sushi emoji before giving this type of feedback. It has now spilled over into offline conversations. Sentences like “Can I give you some sushi on your presentation?” or “Can I go Japanese for a second?” have become the new normal. Who could ever say no to sushi, right? It creates a positive atmosphere around what might otherwise be perceived as harsh criticism. It creates a context in which we can be more candid.
Company culture is key
When you read this, I imagine it might sound gimmicky—like a crazy start-up culture out of control. I can only say that in our case it really does work. It has proven to be a driver in our growth.
The key lesson is that small, disarming, daily habits help shape company culture, which in turn helps us build something bigger. These ‘feedback foods’ are part of a broader feedback culture. In our self-steering teams, we don’t have traditional bosses and managerial structures. And we have other feedback practices like monthly check-ins with your coach, quarterly all-to-all feedback rounds, and live pulse surveys. All are part of building and maintaining an open feedback culture.
Have thoughts or questions? Hungry for more? Drop them in the comments below.
Nele Van Hooste is a true HR rebel at Board of Innovation, a fast-growing global innovation agency, focused on making corporates innovate like startups. As the People & Culture Lead, she is passionate about… well, People & Culture. Feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn!*