As you can tell, Yellow Pencil is a pretty creative company. We earn a living by solving client problems as innovatively as possible, often using techniques few in the industry have yet to try. This requires us to be bold and brave when pitching ideas. We are also a flat organization that depends a lot on collaboration to capitalize on the depth of expertise that live under the YP roof.
So let’s do the math: creative company + innovative clients + flat collaboration = a TON of feedback.
In order for the project teams to work well together, it’s important that we don’t just get better at the feedback process - we need to excel at it.
Feedback can be scary
Our projects are like our babies. Or at least it feels like that sometimes. We create them, foster them, build them up until they can stand on their own two legs, then we set them free into the world to accomplish their full potential. So when it comes time for feedback, it can definitely feel like people are about to tell you that your baby is really ugly.
This analogy is probably a little harsh as it involves the self-esteem of innocent little babies, but it’s so easy to put so much of your self into something you create that you can’t help but take any criticisms as personal attacks. Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, authors of Thanks for the Feedback, call this an Identity Trigger.
“Identity triggers are all about us. Whether the feedback is right or wrong, wise or witless, something about it has caused our identity—our sense of who we are—to come undone.”
Yikes… that’s rough.
Yes, we all put pride and passion in to our work, but we need to remember the very point of feedback: to grow and better ourselves as professionals.
Feedback doesn’t need to be scary
Do you ever get the cringing feeling when you are about to send that email with your project attached and the friendly and hopeful sign-off message, “Let me know if you have any thoughts or feedback!”?
Don’t worry, it’s normal.
Asking for that feedback puts us in a vulnerable position. As mentioned before, we are sending out our baby with hopes that the receiver will 100% understand our motivations and context prior to judging. But since we are all busy people with our own work to worry about, when is that ever the case?
As dependent as we’ve become on technology doing our dirty work, face-to-face feedback is always the best as you are also provided with visual cues from the reviewer. Sometimes subtleties can get lost in translation through email, creating their own set of problems. My designer friend is a strong believer in the necessity of a sarcasm font for this very reason, but that’s another blog post.
To make it less scary...
We need to ask more questions
I don’t just want to pick on people who are asking for feedback. You feedback givers have an important responsibility too! As the person who’s being asked for feedback, you may not (probably don’t) have all the information you need to properly assess the piece of work in question. So, it is important to ask questions. Often times people are quick to submit their list of constructive criticisms before getting proper clarity on the motivations of the author. This can be incredibly frustrating. By asking clarifying questions, you are helping the author understand your own frame of mind. You probably have very different goals in mind when it comes to the project. So help the author understand this.
Constructive vs. Developmental
I recently heard the word “developmental feedback” as a replacement term for “constructive feedback.” This resonated with me because, despite them being synonyms, I felt switching up the term to “developmental” reminds people that we are all here to learn and teach each other. The feedback you are about to give me is to help me be better than I am. Doesn’t that make you rethink how to frame it? How to communicate it? Even which medium you use to send it? Yellow Pencil is a learning organization. We all have education allowances and are not just encouraged to use them; they are actually tied to our annual reviews. We are expected to be constantly learning and growing. This is vital in a technology company!
Stone & Heen explain that there are three forms of feedback:
Coaching (here’s a better way to do it)
Evaluation (here’s where you stand)
This is where understanding each others’ motivations becomes vital. If you are hoping for coaching feedback, and are given evaluation or appreciative feedback, you are either going to be frustrated or deem the interaction completely useless. So communication is key!
How do we get better?
Stone & Heen offer great suggestions.
Here are some thoughts for both feedback givers and receivers:
Ask yourself three questions:
1. What’s my purpose in giving/receiving this feedback?
2. Is it the right purpose from my point of view?
3. Is it the right purpose from the other person’s point of view?
There are other factors that come into play that will make the feedback process a lot messier than what I’ve described above. For example, if you have a poor relationship with the person providing/receiving the feedback, biases will play a huge factor. But gaining a perspective that makes you stop and think before you react can go a long way.
A real world case study
Carbone Smolan Agency, a design firm in Manhattan, has a feedback system I love. Whenever someone presents their work, they have everyone in the meeting present 3 loves and 3 wonders/wishes. This is great for a number of reasons:
1. It ensures that everyone in the room is heard, not just the most outspoken people.
2. It gets people to use the word love. And we all know the world needs more of that!
3. It frames what could be negative feedback as something more thoughtful and less confrontational.
4. All wishes/wonders and loves are followed up with the team asking “why?” when people don’t offer this naturally.
That last one is especially important because without that additional input, their comment is mostly unhelpful. Want some examples of unhelpful feedback? Check out the incredible ad posters Mark Shanley and Paddy Treacy created as an outlet for their client feedback frustrations - aptly titled “Creative Catharsis.”
So, to sum up, feedback shouldn’t make or break your day, but it should make you better.
Remember that we all have very different backgrounds and expertise than each other, than our clients, than our partners! When approaching feedback, focus on the word “developmental” and help foster growth and trust in one another.
Try to understand what feedback you are looking for and what feedback is being presented, then get aligned.
And I highly recommend reading “Thanks for the Feedback.” It’s chock full of interesting case studies and new perspectives around the topic.
Now it’s your turn! Send me your feedback! Do you have your own system that works? I want to hear about it!