How Board Of Innovation Built A Feedback Culture With Tacos, Burgers and Sushi

Nele Van Hooste

Before joining Board of Innovation as a People & Culture Lead half a year ago, I had already worked in the domain of ‘Human Resources’ for around ten years. I found out that most people actually hate feedback at work. And why wouldn’t they? 

Feedback is often limited to the yearly, generally feared, performance reviews. And often, feedback is seen and used as of a weapon to justify (the lack of) wage increases, secure promotions or engage in office politics, rather than a true driver for personal and company growth.

However, multiple studies confirm, feedback (appreciative as well as more constructive feedback) works best when it’s something frequent, immediate, concrete, and comes in small portions

As strange as this may sound, the most natural way of giving feedback is actually how we interact with children: we provide them with feedback all the time, with the purpose for them to learn and grow. Imagine if we just sat down with them twice a year to discuss topics such as taking off their shoes in the hallway, cleaning their plate, saying thank you properly, etc. Doesn't seem right, does it? 

So when I joined Board of Innovation, I was happy to find an organisation focused on building a strong direct-feedback culture.

Feedback Food

Feedback is the breakfast of champions
- Ken Blanchard

When I started at the organisation, I noticed an important part of Board of Innovation’s feedback culture actually also revolved around different types of food, often expressed in emojis:

  • Tacos  🌮
  • Burgers 🍔
  • Sushi 🍣

Emojis were invented in Japan to express emotions that were otherwise hard or risky to express in person. They help as a communication tool when speaking to others about something emotionally complex or hard to deal with. That’s when emojis come into play: each of the three emoji represents a way to deliver feedback

Tacos 🌮

When I joined, I got introduced to this Mexican delicacy very quickly. Our organisation had already been using it for a few years, and this practice had ingrained itself in our daily work.

On our Slack, we have a plugin that allows us to hand out tacos to one another. Colleagues give each other a virtual taco as a way to congratulate or say thank you.

This has spread beyond our chat system: at our monthly team meeting, we introduced taco-time where we give credit to each other for the wins of the past month. A few weeks ago, I even found a paper-folded taco on my desk, that appeared to be an anonymous appreciation letter.

In my opinion, our tacos are incredibly valuable. However, at some point, we realised our “taco-culture” contributed to the creation of a conflict-avoidant culture: more specifically, we were very prone to give appreciation, while we were less used to deal with conflict and disagreement. With ‘raise the bar’ as one of our core values, we need to focus on constructive criticism as well.

Burgers 🍔

So, that's when we decided to introduce burgers. The meat represents the criticism (the beef), while the buns around it are the silver lining you use to cushion your criticism.

Speaking about a burger allows everyone to express their personal need for balance between meat and buns. Some people prefer honest, direct and very clear constructive feedback (“forget the buns, just give me meat”), while others tend to always cushion feedback with a lot of bread. In case of mixed messages, we say: “What’s the meat you’re giving me?”

Sushi 🍣

However, my all-time favorite is definitely the sushi, introduced by two colleagues Giorgio and Nick in a Hack-My-Week challenge.

Sushi is raw fish, which in this case represents the raw, uncut feedback we give each other. This might sound harsh, but it works out precisely because of the sushi context. It’s a symbol to emphasise that the feedback is given with nothing but good intentions. It helps people who avoid conflict more and find it hard to give honest, direct feedback. The aim of the sushi is to realise it isn’t meant to hurt anyone, but to point out areas of improvement, for both personal and company growth.

In online conversations, we add a sushi emoji before giving this type of feedback and it has also translated into offline conversations. We use sentences like “Can I give you some sushi on your presentation?” or “Can I go Japanese for a second?”. And who would ever say no to sushi, right? It creates a positive atmosphere around what is sometimes perceived as hard criticisms and it allows us to create a context in which we can be more straightforward.

Company culture as a main driver

When reading this, you might find it gimmicky, like a startup culture which has gotten out of control. I can just say, in our case it really does work and has proven to be a key driver in pushing growth.

The key lesson here is that small, disarming daily things can help to shape a company culture and help build something bigger. The ‘feedback foods’ are of course incorporated in a broader feedback and company culture. In our self-steering teams, where we don’t have traditional bosses and managerial structures, other feedback key practices like monthly check-ins with your coach, quarterly all-to-all feedback rounds, and live pulse surveys, are all as much part of building and maintaining an open feedback culture.

Originally posted on Board of Innovation.