What Infants and Marksmen Can Teach HR and Analytics About Feedback


Young infants are generally bad at grabbing things. Really bad. Their arms shift and flail all over the place and the odds of connecting with what they want are slim. But over time they get better, developing a laser-like focus and the arm launches to match. Eventually parents need to go into lockdown mode to keep everything from being destroyed, spilled, or ingested.

We take this developmental trajectory for granted but what’s happening underneath the infant hood is nothing short of remarkable. In these early periods, our neural systems must learn to coordinate vision and action. This takes practice and feedback (lots and lots of feedback) about the relationship between what we see, what we do, and what happens in the world. If this feedback were delayed by even a hair, learning to grab, walk, or talk would be essentially impossible.

Marksmanship training offers a surprising parallel. If given timely, accurate performance feedback, novice shooters can quickly learn to integrate what they see, what they do, and what they hit. Eventually they can become competent shooters. But what if our novice shooters received performance feedback several hours later? Not a chance. As with infant motor control, no one could possibly learn and improve in such circumstances.

What do these examples have to do with HR Analytics? Everything.

At its core, HR is about harnessing human capital to efficiently and effectively achieve a set of business outcomes. But our ability to continually grow and add value depends critically on feedback.

We can’t learn motor control skills if feedback is delayed for a few seconds, we can’t learn to shoot if accuracy feedback is delayed a few hours, and we can’t meaningfully improve employee performance if feedback (and/ or the data) is delayed by a few months.

Organizations appear to be waking up to the problems of a feedback process limited to the annual review. I fear this might be just another trend, but I think it is worth highlighting three pillars of performance feedback that should go hand-in-hand with faster feedback loops in corporate human capital:


Feedback is only effective if we can meaningfully compare it to something. This takes memory but memories change and degrade over time.

What It Means

Provide feedback within the time window of the original activity. If someone provides the perfect analyses, tell them promptly to facilitate learning and encourage a repeat performance. If a presentation was poor, say what should have been changed while everyone’s memory is fresh, not a week or two later.

In the context of analytics, this also means consistently and diligently updating performance information as an organization. This requires the support of leadership but HR Analytics can make a compelling case for driving such operational changes. A limited, timely bit of performance data is infinitely more valuable than delayed, extensive and ultimately inaccurate data.


There is no such thing as context-free action: infants reach for real objects, marksman shoot at real targets, and employees perform real tasks for real companies.

What It Means

Keep feedback tightly coupled (i.e. situated) to the specific actions demanded within the current role, not a vague, abstract one. There must a clear relationship between the feedback, the previous action, and relevant future actions.

On the data front, you MUST understand the context of performance and behavior before analyzing data (whether numbers or text analysis) to make sure the numbers and conclusions map onto reality. There is nothing worse than a sophisticated analysis that fails to “carve nature at its joints”. If you don’t know the domain, talk to someone else who does. You’ll save yourself serious embarassment and everyone else a ton of time.


Can you visualize NOT doing something? Neither can I. Feedback is most effective when it provides guideposts for correct action, not just warning signs for the wrong ones. Olympic champions never visualize “not losing” and workforce feedback should not be reduced to a set of “do nots”.

What to do

Place a specific, deliberate emphasis on what TO do, on the action TO perform. This is as true for great career development conversations as it is for sales tips or customer service.

For HR Analytics, this means providing a specific set of actionable recommendations based on the data. The world is messy so there will always be some ambiguity, but HR Analytics should support decision-makers by helping guide their eyes and their minds. Be honest and straightforward but be clear about your conclusions.

Final Thoughts

Growth, development, and performance all take place in the real world. To successfully navigate and coordinate our activities in complex, dynamic environments we need timely, situated, and specific feedback. Infants know this. Marksmen know this. HR should too.

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photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/8623220@N02/2333665024″>Army rifle shooting, Olympic games  (LOC)</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/”>(license)</a>

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