The John Wooden Approach to Actionable Feedback

John Wooden is one of the most legendary coaches -- in any sport -- of all-time. He lead his team to 10 NCAA Championships at UCLA and, at one point, they won 88 consecutive games. For context, the coaches with the next-highest number of championships have four -- meaning they’d need to win titles for over a half-decade to catch Wooden. The next longest winning streak is 60 games -- and the one after that is 47, also held by Wooden.


In short, he was a great coach and leader.

In the 1970s, two psychologists -- Ron Gallimore and Roland Thorp -- studied Wooden. They recorded 2,300 instances of feedback, and the results were:


  • 6.7% were compliments
  • 6.6% were expressions of displeasure
  • Over 75% contained pure information -- what to do and how to do it, with no emotional context


Now, yes, coaching 18-to-22 year-olds at high-level college basketball is different than running a 500+-person widget company. But these findings are crucial: as Dale Carnegie has also pointed out, people are creatures of emotion -- not inherently creatures of logic. We want our workplace to be logical, which is why we create process. But because the people that work on projects are inherently emotional, workplaces often become so too.


The Wooden research underscores the importance of focusing on the how in feedback -- direct, actionable improvement items, stripped bare of office politics as background context.


Over 3 in 4 directions that Wooden gave were delivered in this way, and he’s arguably the best all-time in his profession.


When effective feedback is actionable information, the likely result is increased productivity toward a goal. That is the similarity between coaching college basketball athletes and running an organization: both strive for more productivity and trying goal achievement.


At Waggl, we partner with companies to design employee feedback pulses; which questions to send at the right frequency, how to receive and act on the feedback, and determine the next steps - diving deeper into select areas such as Change, Strategy or Culture, allowing time for action to be taken (based on feedback received), and clear guidance on how to track progress.


That’s part of our Wooden approach. We want to make sure leaders understand how to maximize productive feedback and clearly define actionable items.


As we’re in the midst of NBA Playoffs, you may wonder how many of today’s pro players like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, or DeMar DeRozan have been influenced by John Wooden’s coaching style. There’s little doubt that true leadership, based on solid principles such as inspiring players to become their best possible selves (on and off the court), transcends time.

Waggl helps organizations distill the wisdom in the system.  If simple, agile, and more actionable insights are what you're after, while working to make your workplace more human - we would love to connect with you and exchange ideas.  Contact us:  connect@waggl.com