Leaders often use analogies from elite sport to inspire better business performance. Seeking to emulate the collaborative performance of Formula 1 pit crews or Premier League football teams is compelling. However, such an approach misses a key factor.

In elite sport, feedback on performance is immediate. Every minute technical, physiological and psychological factor is measured, analysed and improved. The results are immediately clear, allowing for fast iteration and learning loops to drive up performance. This immediacy of feedback is far removed from most business settings.

In his book, “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf”, John Coates describes how financial traders’ learning and ‘gut feelings’ improve through the real-time feedback on their trading performance they gain through live market data. Indeed, traders’ physiology closely tracks the market, with levels of cortisol, dopamine and testosterone rising and falling to influence the traders’ risk-taking mindset. Social technology is designed to attract and maintain our attention through the dopamine hits received with each piece of feedback – likes, comments, ratings etc. Feedback-rich environments inherently drive faster learning and higher performance. They are more engaging and more exciting. They are also potentially more stressful, if not managed carefully.

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Construction, manufacturing and operational sites offer tangible and quick feedback on many aspects of their status and performance. Skilled site agents and operational managers can intuitively ‘feel’ how things are going and take immediate action when necessary. In the office-based worlds of design and other knowledge-focused professional activities, it is harder to get clear, real-time and collectively shared perspectives on progress and performance. The COVID-19 induced virtual and ‘hybrid’ environments only exacerbate this. Many knowledge workers are spending a high proportion of their time isolated from any source of immediate feedback – or indeed any feedback at all.

Great leaders inspire their people using appropriate analogies from other environments. They also ensure that in their organisation there is the opportunity for every individual to give and receive feedback as closely as possible in real-time. They create feedback-rich environments.

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