Faults of Feedback

by Matt Flanagan May 14th, 2021

Feedback is an important part of the way we make things better. Usually coming in the form of evaluation and advice, they are the reference points we orient ourselves with along our journey. This information is all around us. We're focused and trained how to receive feedback, yet auditing the other end of this operation is frequently neglected.

Living in the information age, the number of data points and sources of feedback grow continuously. There's no shortage of data to scrape or people willing to tell you their opinion. Technology has made listening easier and addictive, but we must be mindful of the naive assumption that all feedback is equally useful and worth interacting with. Finding a signal in the noise can be challenging, especially without acknowledging the faults of feedback.

There are two major fault lines beneath our feedback infrastructure. The first, dubbed "Idiosyncratic Rater Bias", is well studied. All the research suggests that we are incredibly poor at giving subjective feedback. In fact, with such high variance, the only thing accurately predictable about the feedback given is the characteristics of the rater, not the rated. Yet we still look to others for a source of truth. We want to know our story as told through the eyes of others. There is a prevailing idea that a culture of candid transparency is the best environment for improvement. And it's easy to get caught up in the macho obsession that only the best can handle criticism, or that it's a matter of duty to show others what we think they couldn't possibly see themselves. The rated write a narrative subconsciously and obsess about the motive behind every piece of feedback recieved. As a part of our "fight or flight" response, being exposed to our flaws can feel like falling into ice water. You shut down, sent into a survival state of self-conciousness, smothering your ability to grow, be creative and swim. This second fault line introduces a dangerous potential for a poorly-focused feedback loop to derail a supposedly positive iterative process.

So how can we be champions of better feedback loops? Football doesn't always provide great systemic examples, and I've written about that before, but I do believe in what I learned from film study. Over the course of a practice or game, there were hundreds of clips we watched with our position coach - some good, some not so much. When we came across a great play, we watched it over and over again. Breaking down everything that was done well. In fact, if the play showcased one of us doing a technique to perfection, you would make it onto his "clinic tape" - a point of pride in the room. He was building it for the circuit of camps he attended at the end of the season, but we watched this highlight tape often. Not for sake of hyping ourselves up, but to show us that we were capable of doing things excellently, and how easy we could make it look. The amount of time we spent watching ourselves doing the technique the right way pales in comparison to the time spent correcting missed blocks or dropped passes.

The real world doesn't have the luxury of film study. But we can apply these lessons from the film room to make our feedback loops more constructive:

Be thoughtful about where we take feedback from

Without doing so feedback can distort the message, not help discover it. What is your source of truth? In those meetings, we only had so much time to review the tape. We could have spent equal time talking about what we did really well and what we didn't. But we chose to invest our time learning how to do things the right way instead of how to avoid doing it wrong. Learning flourishes off what we do well, not what we do poorly — especially not someone else’s definition of it. Interviews with customers who churn will tell you nothing about why others stay. Intentional processes for collecting feedback helps focus efforts on making good outcomes repeatable instead of covering for capabilities you're missing.

Acknowledge and explore the nature of excellence

Recognize and celebrate when things go well. Excellence is the ultimate outcome. Give praise for what others do that are excellent. It will help them do it again. To accomplish this we have to replay and study wins. After all, the best version of things are built by cultivating and expanding what they do well. We can still learn from the opposite, but these will always be remediations, and our energy is better spent elsewhere.


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