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June 19, 2013 » 11:44 pm

Kangaroo Court: A Tool for Constructive Feedback

One of my personal challenges at Groupaya was not overwhelming my team with negative feedback. I was generally proud of the quality of my team’s work, and I think I was decent at expressing that pride in the form of positive, constructive feedback. However, I also generally had a long list of nitpicks, and I never felt the need to hold any of that back. In my mind, my positive feelings far outweighed my criticism. However, I often had difficulty communicating that.

My friend, Alex Kjerulf, is a happiness guru, and he speaks often about negativity bias. Humans are biologically more attuned to negative than to positive feedback, between three-to-five times as much. To compensate for negativity bias, you need to share positive feedback three-to-five times as often as negative.

I tried to do this, and I was sometimes even successful, but there was a deeper issue. Rebecca Petzel once said to me, “You’re the most positive person in the company, but somehow, your negative feedback stings more than anyone else’s.” My problem wasn’t necessarily quantity, it was quality.

I tried a lot of different things, and nothing seemed to work well. Out of desperation, I decided to invent a game inspired by kangaroo courts.

Kangaroo courts are essentially arbitrary forms of justice. In government, they describe a corrupt judicial system. In sports, however, they’re used as a way to enforce unwritten rules and to build team camaraderie.

A team’s veterans are usually the arbiters of justice, although the coaches sometimes play this role as well. Veteran leaders might fine their teammates for something ludicrous, such as wearing a really loud tie, but they also dole out justice for disciplinary reasons, such as showing up late to practice. Fines are often used to fund team parties.

I decided that Groupaya needed a kangaroo court. If I could attach a number to my feedback, then the magnitude of my feedback would become more clear. For nitpicks, I would dole out small fines. For major problems, I would dole out larger ones.

Given that we were not as liquid as professional athletes, I figured that an arbitrary point system would serve our purposes. Since we were using points instead of money, I figured we could actually reward people as well as penalize them. Since we had a flat, collaborative culture, I decided that anybody in the company should be able to both dole out and take away points. And if we were going to go through the effort of giving and taking points away, we might as well keep track of them.

On June 13, 2012, I created a page on our internal wiki outlining the “rules” of the game, and I announced the game on our internal microblog. I then modeled the game by docking two points from myself, one each for misspelling two people’s names in different places. (This is a huge detail pet peeve of mine, given that we’re in a relational business.)

The game lay dormant for a few days, then on June 17, 2012, I gave and took away points four additional times:

Eugene: +5 to Kristin for her June 14 addition on Charter markers to the Groupaya Way wiki. It was great information, and it showed that she’s developing an instinct for how to use wikis in-the-flow. Love it!

Eugene: -1 to Kristin for being overly motherly with Rebecca

Eugene: -1 to Rebecca for comparing me and Kristin to her parents.

Eugene: +1 to Eugene for unintentionally conceiving of a way to get people to learn how to use the wiki.

Out of the six times I delivered justice, three were “real,” and the rest were jokes. Two of the three “real” instances were me penalizing myself, and the other was me awarding points rather than taking them away.

At this point, our ops guru, Natalie Dejarlais, figured out what was going on, and contributed her own dry sense of humor:

Natalie: +1 to Rebecca for not comparing me to her parents.

Rebecca and Kristin Cobble, my Groupaya co-founder, were mystified. Rebecca, ever the competitive one, was miffed that she was down a point in a game that she hadn’t signed up for. Keep in mind, all of this was happening online. We had not seen each other or talked over the phone, so I had not had the chance to explain the game verbally.

Shortly afterward, I left town for a client, and while I was gone, Natalie explained the game to Rebecca and Kristin at coworking. They got it, both started playing, and the game took on a life of its own. Everyone played. We gave and took points away from each other and ourselves about 40 times a month.

Lots of them were silly, where we were simply goofing off and having fun with each other. Many were concrete and substantial. Unexpectedly, the vast majority of these were positive. I had designed the game to be a safe way to give negative feedback, but it had emerged as a way of celebrating each other’s successes, of tracking what we were doing well, and of lightening the overall mood.

At some point, I decided that the points winner each month should win a trophy (a Surfer Obama bobblehead doll I picked up in Hawaii along with a tiara that Natalie contributed to disincentivize me from trying to win) and that the points would reset each month. We had a monthly awards ceremony, where Natalie would blast the theme song from Rocky, and Kristin would pretend that she didn’t love Surfer Obama. (When she finally won, she confessed her true feelings.)

The game had its desired effect in terms of improving the overall learning culture in our organization, but its most important contribution was joy and humor. I often pondered writing a mobile app so that we could extend the game to our larger network, as we often found ourselves granting points to our external colleagues and clients, who never got to actually see them (or, more importantly, win Surfer Obama).

I’m strongly considering introducing some variation of the game into Changemaker Bootcamp, as I’m looking for creative ways of introducing more concrete feedback so that participants can track their progress. Amy Wu, Groupaya’s brilliant designer, recently told me that she had adapted the game for her kids to great effect. If you decide to adopt or adapt the game for your team or organization, let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear about it!

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4 Responses to “Kangaroo Court: A Tool for Constructive Feedback”

  1. Obvious Harry Potter inspiration, too. 5 points to Gryffindor!

  2. Yes, excellent call! We realized this well after the fact. There was undoubtedly some subconscious stealing at play, which probably means I suffer from some sort of Dumbledore complex.

  3. Hi Eugene,

    On our social sports team we used a classical version of the kangaroo court to record player indiscretions, and (occasionally) the odd piece of good behaviour too! You mentioned you thought of creating a mobile app – we felt the same, and as a result I built the Kangaroo Court website to make it possible for everyone to record/view fines online. We have a notion of seasons and games, but you could easily adapt it to fit your purpose – e.g. you might have a season for each year (e.g. 2013), and then a game for each month (e.g. August).
    I know this is a blatant plug for the app, but please give it a go if you have time, and let me know if you like it. At this stage I'm trying to grow it and the more feedback I get the better 🙂
    http://www.the-kangaroo-court.com/

    Cheers,
    Phil

  4. Very glad to hear that you did this, Phil! I'll take a look.

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