Making Feedback Easier to Swallow

Every Chef Needs a Taste-tester

If you have ever rolled your eyes or fought to hold your tongue when hearing comments about your creative work, you know that it’s not always easy to receive feedback. Feedback is an essential part of that creative process, whether you are working alone or on a team. When it’s done right, feedback brings fresh perspectives, helps us know we are on the right track, and improves the quality of your work. But doing it well doesn’t always come naturally. And if you don’t do it well, it can have a major effect on your results, reputation, and career.

Receiving Feedback

Here are some suggestions for making the feedback you receive as beneficial as possible:

  1. Get lots of perspectives.
    Choose to value feedback and ask many different people for it. To get the most from your critics, communicate the goal of the project, what kind of feedback you’re seeking, and ask clarifying questions. The more feedback you collect, the more likely you are to consider other perspectives and find something that sparks your creative ideas.
  1. Get feedback early and often.
    One reason my music composition lessons were so helpful in college is that I received them so often. By challenging me to consider new ideas each week, my teacher propelled my improvement a little at a time. If I just waited until the composition was finished to get feedback, I wouldn’t have made nearly as much progress.
  1. Own the process while inviting opinions.
    A beneficial feedback session strikes the balance between owning the creative vision while also encouraging honest opinions from others. This involves asking for feedback in the right way. Take the posture of a learner and remember you’re trying to improve the product, not prove yourself.
  1. Just receive.
    Instead of responding immediately to critical feedback, stay in receiver mode. Separating yourself from the product can also help minimize defensiveness.
  1. Evaluate the feedback.
    Not everything you collect is good. Some feedback doesn’t warrant a change of direction. Remind yourself what you are trying to accomplish. The right feedback helps focus your energy on what will make the idea work and achieve the intended goal.
  1. Discern between constructive feedback and voices of the Saboteur.
    Receiving feedback can be dangerous because you’re risking vulnerability. Criticism often cues voices in our heads that tell us we’re not good enough, should play it safe, and probably won’t succeed (see Saboteur). Constructive feedback wants to build up; Saboteur voices want to tear down.

Giving Feedback

Here are some suggestions for making your feedback beneficial to others:

  1. Establish proper context and timing.
    Usually people are most receptive to feedback when they ask for it. Be careful not to force feedback when someone isn’t ready to welcome it. Setting regular times for feedback sessions can help people better prepare.
  1. Listen first.
    Take time to understand the project’s mission and what kind of feedback is wanted. This will help focus your feedback to fulfill the goal and make it most relevant to the project’s current stage.
  1. Stay focused on the project, not the person.
    Remember that you’re on the same side as the person. It’s you and them against the challenge. Instead of focusing on skill, focus on how the product is perceived. Keeping the feedback from getting personal will foster the team spirit so you accomplish more together.
  1. Be honest.
    It’s important to say what you really think instead of just what they want to hear. The purpose of giving feedback is to provide different perspectives. Be affirming, but offer constructive criticism if it will help. Feedback is most powerful when you share the right information in the right way. If you find yourself holding back what you really think, ask yourself if you care more about being liked or the success of the project (Jony Ive learned this from Steve Jobs).
  1. Maintain their creative freedom.
    When offering feedback, don’t insist that things must be done your way. Just clarify the situation and point out what you see. Respecting people’s freedom empowers them to stay in control of the creative process.

Feedback Based on Stages of Development

One thing we’ve noticed at Accent Interactive is that feedback looks different over the life span of a project. Let’s look at the four stages of a project and consider what kinds of feedback are most helpful for that stage.

Early: It’s about Truth

In this beginning stage, you’re just starting out with the project ideas.

Seek validation to your approach:

  • Is the idea good and worth pursuing?
  • Does it meet your needs?
  • What’s missing? What needs to be removed?

Middle: It’s about Goodness

As the project takes shape and develops, make sure you’re on the right track.

Confirm the solution will work:

  • Is the expression of the idea good?
  • Does this have potential to be beneficial and valuable?
  • How are the elements coming together?
  • As before, what’s missing? What needs to be removed?

Late: It’s about Beauty

At this stage the project is being prepared for release.

Focus on refinement:

  • What would make this better?
  • What quick fixes can I make? (It’s too late to revamp if the deadline is soon.)
  • How can I polish it? (Is it aligned? Is it spelled right? Is this shade right?)

After: It’s about Impact

The project has been released. You now have reasons to substantiate the solution and test if the message worked:

  • What was the impact?
  • Where could this go from here?
  • What can I learn from the users?

Building a Feedback Culture

If feedback isn’t already a natural part of your organization, mixing these elements together can help you create the right environment.

  • Values: Establish the importance of learning, growing, and improving, not settling for the status quo.
  • Modeling it: Introduce the culture of feedback to each person joining the team. Debrief every meeting if you can. What could we do differently? What was the impact?
  • Repetition: Give and request feedback often so you and your teammates get used to it and benefit from it.
  • Give and take: Every feedback giver should be a feedback receiver. Play both sides.
  • Relationships: Build rapport with the people so they’ll be more receptive to learn.

Bon Appetit

The next time you hear critique that makes you feel chewed out, or if you’re the one spewing it, then keep these well-seasoned tips in mind to flavor the feedback.

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