How To Deliver Great Feedback

Delivering feedback is a finely tuned skill. The problem is it’s a skill that is rarely finely tuned.

Below is an excerpt from our book Growing up Fast.

Internal Feedback

In agile software development, developers can work and code in pairs — with one person typing like a driver and the other helping see the work like a navigator.

Those pairs are all part of a larger development team that holds short, daily meetings called “stand-ups,” where members of the team share progress and prioritize what each work pair will do for the day. It’s open and non-hierarchical in nature.

“Sprints” are the accumulation of several stand-ups and are focused on wider scopes, where bigger projects that arise dur- ing stand-ups are broken down into manageable parts, or “user stories.” The team then tracks the progress of each user story on “burndown” charts. Burndown charts show what work remains on a user story or sprint, as graphed against time. Where stand-ups happen every day, sprints occur over a longer period time — one week, two weeks, a month.

What’s the common element in all these agile components?

Communication — or, more specifically, positive feedback.

Two people can’t code together without constant feedback.
Teams can’t meet daily without giving feedback.
Projects can’t be broken into parts without feedback.
Burndown charts can’t be relevant without feedback.

But where a piece of coded software can be broken down into time-to-complete milestones and tested immediately to see if it works, a marketing or engineering idea takes more time to execute and try. Stories take time to develop. Progress can be harder to measure.

And unlike software, marketing and design initiatives involve more subjectivity and interpretation. Where there’s subjectivity, there’s the looming mistake of confusing correlation with causality. (For example, wearing an orange shirt does not cause your team to win, even though many people at the game may be wearing orange shirts.)

Because of the subjective shades of gray in agile marketing, giving and receiving good feedback becomes a critical element, or else the entire endeavor can quickly devolve into opinions, arguments, and hierarchy without proper testing and collaboration.

“You’re an idiot.”

That’s one example of bad feedback. Though I’m exaggerating, sometimes criticisms of campaigns, design, headlines and other matters of subjective taste are as thinly veiled. Criticism of ideas for business direction or product improvement can get even more heated.

The agile marketer should crave positive, constructive criticism more than glowing praise.

So how do you give positive feedback? How can it help the agile process?

Describe

Begin any feedback by describing what you you like about an idea. If you don't see or hear anything you like, look harder. Find something — anything — positive. Without positive feedback in the beginning, there is no trust in collaboration.

Analyze

Try to interpret the meaning of what you see. What does the form or idea evoke in your mind? What does it make you think of ? Now see it from the perspective of a customer and try to analyze how the idea fits into one of your user stories.

Evaluate

After you've described the idea and interpreted the meaning, you can begin to raise concerns or introduce why you think a particular execution may fall short of its goal. Try to make a judgement based on the criteria of the idea.

Criteria is everything.

Is this a huge branding and design campaign that will live on for a year or more? Or is it a web landing page with a shelf life of only a few days?

Temper feedback accordingly. After all, you wouldn't judge a child’s self-portrait using the same criteria you'd apply to a Chuck Close portrait.

A Chuck Close Portrait

In agile work, testing — not authority or criteria bias — settles disagreements. Don’t judge the small ideas too harshly.

You don’t have to have a rigid hypothesis in place before you test something, either. In his book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, neuroscientist Stuart Firestein says,

“The trouble with a hypothesis is it’s your own best idea about how something works. And, you know, we all like our ideas so we get invested in them in little ways and then we get invested in them in big ways, and pretty soon I think you wind up with a bias in the way you look at the data.”

For whatever reason, traditional marketing departments have relied on hunches and authority when making decisions. Blame it on those Mad Men again. But for every Don Draper who’s right, there are thousands who are wrong. And whether right or wrong, they all say the same thing, “Trust me, I know. This is right. That is wrong.”

We'd all like to think we “know” what will work. But we don’t, and those who claim to know can be catastrophically out-of- touch.

Keep the feedback positive.

If you enjoyed this excerpt you might like to pickup the full copy of Growing Up Fast On Amazon

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