Giving and Taking Feedback

This is a little long. I wrote it up to answer the question, “What is the best way to give feedback on a design?” I hope its helpful for you.

GIVING feedback

Feedback on the deliverables/decisions

This should be the most common and best forms of feedback. You should:

  1. Identify a logical error. It may be a contradiction in the deliverable or some other kind of logic problem. It’s up to the designer to fix the error, but you can offer suggestion or alternatives or fixes. Don’t force your opinion of the fix on them. Give them space to fix the problem.
    1. Good Example: “Over here, I believe we have a misspelling.” (Factual)
    2. Bad example: “Do you even know how to spell?” (Aggressive/Sarcastic)
  2. Identify a missing ingredient. It might be a use case that was forgotten, or anything else omitted. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater and say the whole thing is bad because of a missing item.
    1. Good Example: “I don’t see where XYZ situation is addressed, am I missing it?”
    2. Bad Example: “This is just wrong.”
  3. Express discomfort. Sometimes you aren’t sure WHY something is wrong, but it makes you feel uncomfortable. This is good. Do your best to explain what risk or bad thing might happen. Its up to the driver to decide if it needs fixing, but they need to hear the discomfort even if it’s not explained fully. Don’t assume your discomfort is crucial and needs to be fixed, but it is crucial to be heard.
    1. Good Example: “The contrast of these two colors makes me worry about color-blindness.”
    2. Bad Example: “I hate this.”
  4. Identify an inconsistency with internal or external standards. The world might call something by a name and the design changed the name, but not for any good reason. Identify where there are standards and we diverge from the. Again, give the driver space to fix it.
    1. Good Example: “The word mixins is used commonly by DBAs, but we have it called MixOuts. Is there an issue with the standard?”
    2. Bad Example: “DBAs will hate this”
  5. Ask questions! Don’t just assume something is wrong. Ask questions to clarify and align.
    1. Good Example: “What would the user do in situation X?” or “Is this use case different from the one above? Can you elaborate on that?”
    2. Bad Example: “Are you stupid or just incompetent?”
  6. Use Reflection to confirm. Sometimes someone says something that is misinterpreted. Use mirroring (without agreeing or disagreeing) to clarify and avoid communication breakdown.
    1. Good Example: “Just so I understand, you are saying [paraphrase what you heard]. Is this correct?” Often the other person will say, “oh no, I meant something different”.
    2. Bad Example: So you want the world to end, is this correct? (sarcastic)
  7. Last resort – Escalate. Sometimes there is a fundamental disagreement on key decisions. When this happens, it’s OK to escalate. Don’t use this technique for every little detail. Managers should make sure this technique isn’t overused.
    1. Good Example: “I think we have a problem here. If it’s OK, I’d like to get [manager names] involved to help us align.”
    2. Bad Example: “We need [manager names] to be here every time.”

The goal is to be informed and aligned on decisions. Staying silent is not the best feedback strategy.

Important note: Some feedback should be delivered one on one, and not in a group setting. If you see feedback going off the rails, suggest that people “take it offline” into a smaller group.

Feedback on the process

It can be very frustrating if you feel the process itself is causing poor decision making. We all need to practice patience so we don’t keep reinventing process, but sometimes process needs documentation or revision.

Steps to improve process:

  1. Get alignment on what the current process is. Sometimes it’s not even written down. Ask people to write it down so you at least have a starting point.
  2. Identify points of concern
    1. Doesn’t handle certain situations
    2. Handles certain situations poorly and yields poor results
    3. Makes people feel excluded or negative
    4. Loses opportunities for certain positive outcomes
  3. Document options – write down alternatives
    1. Generally, try not to overdo it. Start simply.
  4. Meet with small group to iterate and discuss
  5. Build consensus in organization

Change of process is never easy. Building consensus sounds like Dilbert, but it just means getting other people to participate in improving how we work.

Feedback on personal behavior

Put a few hundred people together and you will undoubtedly have personal conflicts that aren’t even about the work. Some people can annoy you so much that it’s hard to think straight when working with them. Feedback is tricky in these cases. You don’t want to make things worse, but you also don’t want to keep things as they are. Here are some steps:

  1. Develop rapport. Ask to have lunch with the person. Spend time with them, break bread. Ask about their lives, their history, ask them about their triumphs and stories. LISTEN. Getting to know someone is a great way to loosen the tension between people.
  2. Tell them how you feel. In a private setting, (not in a group meeting!) tell them that their words hurt or bothered you. Tell them you want to do a good job, but you feel they are making that harder. Don’t accuse them of wrong-doing. You are just expressing how their words and actions made YOU feel. Give them a chance to empathize. Again, it is crucial not to be accusatory. Assume they didn’t mean to make you feel that way. Assume they don’t even know you feel that way.
  3. Ask them for feedback. Be open to critique and ask them to go negative on you. Sometimes people just need to vent their feelings so they can let go. By showing vulnerability, you are gaining support for their own vulnerability. Stay calm. These are difficult talks to have, but often can yield a much better relationship.
  4. Ask for guidance. In escalation order: Your own manager, mentor, their manager, and finally HR. It’s not “tattle tailing”. It’s giving people, especially managers, a chance to help. That’s what they are there for. Keeping things festering is never going to work. Break the cycle and get help from others.

Good Example: “When you cut me off during the meeting, it made me feel small and unimportant.”
Bad Example: “Why are you such an ass?!”

Feedback on ethical infractions

These are serious situations. If you think someone is acting in a way that is inconsistent with ethical standards, you should be pretty blunt about it to that person. Start in private and if you think the behavior is persistent, speak with your own manager first.

Good example: “When you suggested to bypass the security training, that is unethical. We need to do that to be certified as secure for many customers.”

Bad example: “You are unethical! I feel it in my bones!”

TAKING feedback

Feedback Rule #1: Never get defensive. Feedback is there to help you be your best. Take it as a gesture of goodwill, not an attack.

Taking feedback is half of the battle. If someone is trying to give you feedback, do your best to listen and really understand what their point of view is. Don’t try to argue why they are wrong. This doesn’t mean accepting everything they say as truth. However, understand that it is true to them. Assuming positive intent, respect that you are unaligned and work towards common goals.

You should use similar techniques such as Asking Questions, and Reflecting to clarify meaning as you receive feedback.

Summary

Feedback is like oxygen. It’s a bad idea to go too long without it. Never assume your feedback is perfect and will be adopted immediately. Also never assume feedback is worthless and your work/behavior is flawless. By giving feedback we are giving each other more information to make good decisions.

Whatya think?