The importance of effective feedback


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Understanding what we do right and wrong through effective feedback is the cornerstone for improvement. It applies both to our own professional development as well as organizational success. But one of the major obstacles to successfully leveraging the value of feedback is in using biased data. Pure, measurable data is less subject to biases, but subjective data based on opinion comes with the baggage of these human biases.

For organizations that rely on feedback to improve performance, ensuring that the data behind the feedback is unbiased is a significant challenge. This is especially true when things don’t go right. Getting leaders to admit mistakes and provide honest feedback can easily sabotage the quality of feedback, reducing the value that comes from the process.

Perhaps no organization relies more on this type of feedback to improve performance than the US military. Each campaign, battle or even training exercise is immediately followed by a fact-finding exercise that relies on critical feedback from its leaders. The high stakes and importance of this is obvious: Hundreds, if not thousands, of lives are at stake if the lessons learned are not applied going forward.

One of the best examples of organizations successfully leveraging effective feedback to improve performance goes back almost 70 years. In November 1943, Navy and Marine Corps forces engaged in one of the most crucial battles of World War II. Facing an enemy that was heavily fortified, Allied forces staged the first of many planned amphibious assaults of small islands—those most heavily defended by Japanese forces—in the Central Pacific. The assaults were required to neutralize Japanese resistance and establish Allied airbases in the bloody march towards the Japanese home islands.

That first battle occurred on Tarawa, a tiny atoll over 2,300 miles southeast of Tokyo and part of the Gilbert Islands. The actual fighting lasted barely three days, but in the 76 hours that it took to secure the island, American casualties were staggering. Over 3,400 Marines and sailors went down, including over 1,000 dead—a casualty rate of close to 30 percent. The Japanese fared even worse, losing almost 4,700 men—all but a handful of soldiers chosen to defend the island—with a fatality rate of 99.7 percent. 1

The American public was shocked when it learned of the high casualties encountered at Tarawa, a mysterious location thousands of miles from Tokyo. The public immediately questioned whether the Central Pacific strategy of going after small, heavily defended islands so far away from a primary target—Japan—was necessary. Because of the strong reaction from both the American public and the subsequent second-guessing from US government officials, military commanders and planners knew that their only chance of continuing the offensive was to learn (and learn quickly) from the costly Tarawa campaign. Despite strong ongoing public support for the war, reaction to the high casualties encountered at Tarawa sent a strong message to American commanders: Learn from your mistakes, fix what’s wrong and ensure you get it right next time. If the lessons learned were not applied quickly, then the entire Central Pacific strategy was at risk.

With strong encouragement from senior leadership, feedback from the battle was surprisingly frank and honest.

Commanders at all levels with the attack force came forth quickly with their analyses of what worked and what failed at Tarawa. These reports were remarkably free of self-serving rhetoric. Most commanders admitted mistakes, scrutinized plans and doctrine, and suggested practical improvements. All participants could sense the critical value of these lessons learned at Tarawa. 2

One senior commander commented, “We knew that our report of this operation was going to be textbook for future operations, so we tried to spell out everything—any mistakes that we made or faults that we found.” 3American commanders also knew that the remainder of the entire Central Pacific campaign hung in the balance, as it was crucial that the feedback and recommendations that followed were as honest and unbiased as humanly possible. The lives of tens of thousands of young American Marines and sailors were at stake.

Within weeks, Navy and Marine Corps commanders compiled the feedback and forwarded a number of specific recommendations to improve operations going forward. Nothing in the existing strategy was sacred. One of the primary lessons learned from the battle was the recommendation for Allied forces to use violent, overwhelming force, swiftly applied going forward. American commanders could no longer go to battle with forces that were simply greater than the enemy. For all future engagements, the mandate was that Allied forces had to be geometrically greater in number than what anything the enemy could offer. 4

Other significant, more tactical recommendations included coordinating the timing and increasing the duration of naval gunfire support with the goal of destruction rather than neutralization, and utilizing more LVT amphibious tractors, including enough to carry ashore not only the primary assault waves but also the reserve waves to follow in future operations. Other recommendations included utilizing amphibious tanks and LCI gunboats, which had not been available at Tarawa but were absolutely necessary for future engagements. 5

The lessons learned based on critical feedback at Tarawa would be applied to all subsequent amphibious assaults as the US forces worked their way towards Tokyo. Allied forces increased geometrically in size as sailors and Marines seized control of the Marianas, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Naval gunfire support became a deadly precursor to Japanese forces as waves of Marines hit the beach in their new amphibious tanks and gunboats. Allied lives were still lost, but never again did Americans suffer the high proportion of losses as sustained at Tarawa. And the American public—whose earlier protests after Tarawa almost derailed the entire Central Pacific strategy—began to accept with grim determination that the road to Tokyo was not going to be easy. Confident in their trust that American commanders were going to apply fresh knowledge to each ensuring battle and continuously recalibrate, Americans accepted the heavy toll that followed as a necessary evil in the quest to defeat the Japanese.

After the war, senior Marine Corps commander General Julian Smith reinforced the significance of Tarawa and the value of the subsequent feedback.

“There had to be a Tarawa…Men died because of mistakes made…but Tarawa fell. Amphibious warfare proved to be a complex operation to master. Flawless amphibious assaults belonged in the realm of myth. The learning process had to recycle continuously. Deficiencies, once identified, debated and corrected, became dividends. Tarawa provided American planners and commanders the essential confidence to wage offensive amphibious operations of increasing complexity throughout the duration of the war.” 6

And Henry Shaw, for many years the chief historian of the Marine Corps, observed that Tarawa was the primer, the textbook on amphibious assault that guided and influenced all subsequent landings in the Central Pacific. Shaw believed that the prompt and selfless analyses which immediately followed Tarawa were of great value: “From analytical reports of the commanders and from their critical evaluations of what went wrong, of what needed improvement, and of what techniques and equipment proved out in combat, came a tremendous outpouring of lessons learned.” 7

The value of effective feedback—which is necessary for organizations to learn from past performance—is only as good as the underlying data that serves as the basis for the analysis. And in most cases, it is the human element of subjectivity and the inclusion of biases that can either make or break the process. For one crucial battle that took place almost seventy years ago, Navy and Marine Corps leaders were able to put these biases aside and provide honest feedback that was remarkably free of self-serving rhetoric. The end result of this remarkable process was that the lessons learned and recommendations applied going forward saved the lives of many thousands of American Marines and sailors for the remainder of the war.

1 Joseph H. Alexander, Utmost Savagery, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995), P. 238.

2 Alexander, Utmost Savagery, p. 235.

3 Alexander, Utmost Savagery, p. 235.

4 Alexander, Utmost Savagery, p. 235.

5 James R. Stockman, The Battle for Tarawa,

6 Alexander, Utmost Savagery, p. 245.

7 Joseph H. Alexander, Across the Reef: The Marine Assault of Tarawa,

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Patrick Lefler
Patrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group -- a management consultancy that helps growing companies grow faster by providing unique value at the product level: specifically product marketing, pricing, and innovation. He is a former Marine Corps officer; a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School, and has over twenty years of industry expertise.


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