Be more explicit about the sort of feedback that is useful, right now.

Give & Take

Giving feedback is a delicate art. Whenever we share our perspective, we tread the fine line between helping shine a light on blind spots and highlighting uncomfortable weaknesses.

Receiving feedback is also a skill we can develop. Part of constantly improving is learning to listen without immediately needing to respond - either to deflect or fight back.

For example, here is a common pattern (once you know it you will see it everywhere):

Person A: “We need to do X”
Person B: “Umm, I can see some problems with X”
Person A: “Well, what are you going to do about it then?”

If we insist that every observation comes with a proposed solution, we’ll get given far fewer observations.

If responsibility for fixing things that are broken always falls to the person who reports the issue, eventually nobody will report issues.

It’s unlikely that the person giving this kind of feedback is the best person to solve the problem they are describing anyway. Identifying problems and solving problems are different skills (remember evidence is the key to identifying problems, experiments are the key to solving problems etc).

Ultimately we all need to solve the problems with our own work, by experimenting with possible solutions and seeing what results we get. Simply acknowledging there are problems when they are pointed out is better than immediately trying to hand that work straight back to the person who is just trying to help.

Or, another variant:

Person A: “I’m doing this new thing Y”
Person B: “Ooh, interesting. I’ve thought a lot about Y. Here are some of the challenges I see with that solution…”
Person A: “Why are you always so negative? I only ever hear you criticise. Can’t you just say something constructive for once?”

If we take every piece of feedback as a chance to start an argument we’ll get less feedback.

Perhaps the person giving feedback intends to offend, but probably not. I’ve found it’s nearly always better to assume the best in these situations. We need to try and reframe from feeling hurt by “negative feedback” to consciously seeking out “useful friction”. 1

It’s very difficult to find the balance between being delicate with new ideas, so they have an opportunity to grow and develop, and being brutal with new ideas, so they are tested and challenged.

When you give somebody feedback about their work be careful not to be a ‘seagull’ … swooping in, shitting all over the place and then quickly flying away again.

What do you need, right now?

Often the reason receiving feedback makes us defensive is simply related to timing. Just being more explicit about the sort of feedback that is useful at each stage can make a big difference:

In the early stages, when all we have is a rough idea, feedback on the concept is valuable but feedback on the polish is premature. Ask for 30% feedback.

Later, when the idea has been developed but still has rough edges, feedback on the details is useful but feedback on the foundation is too late and so more likely to be annoying than productive. Ask for 70% feedback.

When we are more explicit about the type of feedback we want at the time we share our work, we are more likely to get useful suggestions that improve the work.

And this itself creates a positive feedback loop - the more we see the things we’re sharing improved by feedback we get from others, the more willing we become to share in the future.

If we get this right we create an environment where everybody in the team is much more willing to share work-in-progress at a point in time where it can actually be improved.

  1.  ↩︎

Related Essays