Used properly, 360 degree feedback can be a powerful tool for improvement. Madeleine Owen looks at how to make the results stick

Anyone who has participated in 360 degree feedback will know that it can be extremely powerful and a catalyst for lasting behavioural change. But too often the considerable investment an organisation makes in such a programme is wasted and the hoped-for benefits do not materialise. What is going wrong?

The role of 360 degree feedback is becoming increasingly important as organisations look for ways to improve performance and demand that their employees adapt to change.

Most recognise its potential power and many see it as an essential part of the HR or training and development toolkit.

The NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement offers a 360 degree feedback tool for use with the NHS leadership qualities framework. It is likely that trusts will make increasing use of 360 for development purposes, given the importance of leadership to health minister Lord Darzi's quality improvement plans.

People may also agree, however, that 360 programmes are vulnerable to failing to deliver. All too often, once people have received their feedback, the momentum ebbs away. It is not unusual for a 360 to be consigned to a drawer and fail to produce visible, lasting changes in behaviour, performance and results.

We have identified some important steps that an organisation should take when planning the follow-up to a 360. Devoting sufficient time to carefully considering these critical factors will enable organisations to more effectively capitalise on the outputs of 360.

Senior management commitment to the programme

This should be explored in some depth. Is the leadership team prepared to make time for people to get on with their development activities? What will have to slip down the priority list? Is everyone clear about how the 360 fits with the organisation's strategic priorities? Where possible, find opportunities to consult these and other key stakeholders during the design and planning phase.

Line management readiness

Do line managers understand their unique responsibilities? Are they equipped to pick up personal development discussions once the feedback has been given? Separate briefing sessions to communicate with line managers and to ensure they have the skills to help their people make the most of the feedback.

Alignment of existing processes and procedures

Lining up other organisational processes, mechanisms and initiatives alongside the 360 before it starts is valuable for embedding it as part of habitual management activity later on.

For instance, make clear links to the existing professional development process by using it as a template for capturing individuals' development needs.

Sufficient time for feedback, reflection and acceptance

We have found that people vary widely on how quickly and fully they understand but also accept the initial results of the 360. All participants benefit from discussing the results of a 360 with an objective third party. Participants tend to benefit from further reflection.

We advise clients to offer at least two sessions; one to share and explore the results, the second for development planning and coaching. By the second session, participants tend to be ready to identify priority development areas and construct a plan to work on.

Unless participants set SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely), which are reviewed regularly, few will achieve the improvements they desire.

Down to the detail

Drilling down to this level of detail is central to effective development planning.

However, significant behaviour change is unlikely to occur unless the line manager takes a strong interest too. Many of our clients have trained line managers to be development planning coaches, so that they are available to support participants with this critical follow-up activity.

Although people must take responsibility for their own personal development, many organisations overestimate the ability of the participants to do so and underestimate the organisation's role in facilitating this ownership.

If your objective in running a 360 is to achieve observable and lasting changes in behaviour and performance, the organisation must continue to reinforce the importance of the programme and its outcomes - through managers, senior stakeholders and organisational mechanisms and processes - long after the process itself is complete.

Otherwise, you are unlikely to see a return on your investment.

360 feedback: top tips

  • Obtain feedback from eight or more people and let participants choose who it comes from. That way, they tend to be more interested in the results.

  • Allow individuals to have some say in the criteria they are being measured against. For instance, involve them and their line managers in identifying those qualities from the NHS leadership qualities framework which are important for their particular organisation, at that particular time.

  • Help participants to interpret the results. Never leave them to work through the data alone. Where possible, keep reports simple and cut down on complex data, graphs and charts.

  • Ensure a package of support is available (briefings, workshops, coaching, development resources). Standalone interventions have limited impact. Where budgets and resources are tight, consider running the programme in stages with smaller groups.

  • Take steps at the start of the programme to ask about participants' aspirations and personal goals. As well as increasing their interest in the feedback, it tends to improve commitment to development plans.

  • Do not assume that one size fits all. Investigate the possibility of tailoring your 360 to suit your organisation, the seniority of the participants and its purpose.

  • Involve line managers from start to finish and ensure they are fully prepared.