Art of Production
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Art of Production

Managing Feedback

Two Techniques We Use

#1 — Client Feedback

I’m going to bet that all your SOWs say the client gets 3 feedback rounds per deliverable or something similar. But how often do you manage to hold clients to that? And at what cost? Have you ever wondered why 3?

It isn’t because 1 is too few and 4 is too many. It’s a hangover from the days when production companies built banners, and the kind of feedback you could expect from a client might be something like, “can you move the text up a bit,” or, “can you make the button a bit bigger?”

Back then 3 rounds of feedback made loads of sense because the type and scope of projects we produced were significantly smaller and less complex than the ones we work on now. Banners were made up of a few key art frames, and the only “feature” to speak of was a button to visit the brand dot com.

Applying the “3 rounds of feedback” heuristic to the kind of work we do now — where there are layers of features and interdependencies between them — is an enormous missed opportunity at best and damaging the work and client relationship at worst.

The Client has access to information you don’t. Their perspective is unique, valuable and it’ll reveal the blindspots in your planning. They know it, and you know it, and they’re going to get pissed off with you and dissatisfied with the project (or both) if you limit their involvement.

Feedback doesn’t have to put pressure on the project; in fact the opposite is true — enabling frequent and continued input on the output from clients will not only increase the chance of a successful outcome, it will deepen the trust that’s critical for the long term health of the account.

It’s also the gateway to incremental revenue growth — the more clients are invited to contribute the bigger the laundry list of potential change requests and future phases grows. But it’ll only work in your favour if you stop trying to limit feedback, and focus instead on controlling scope.

To solve the problem, redefine the problem.

For most people, the problem with feedback is that it comes hand in hand with scope creep. But the volume of feedback isn’t the problem per se; the actual problem with feedback is:

  1. Not all information is equal. The type of feedback really matters and;
  2. Where in the process when you get the feedback can have a massive impact

A subjective opinion about an evidence-based design choice when you are entering QA is just fucking annoying. But when your client offers insights during usability testing based on something business critical, it’s helpful and you need to know what they have to say.

Different situations warrant different kinds of feedback. Your goal then is not to control how much feedback the team receives, but to help clients provide the right type of feedback given the stage you’re at in the project.

The heuristic we use is, “can do/can’t do.” At the start of the project, we set out what type of feedback we would like from the client in each major phase of work (what they can do) making clear what feedback we don’t want (what they can’t do) at the same time. We remind them about the rules as the project unfolds and we are soliciting that feedback, and we remind them again when/if they veer off track.

Tell the client what you need. They are rational, reasonable people.

The scope becomes a million times simpler to control when clients self-police their feedback, ensuring it’s relevant and specific before even gets to you, and pulling in the direction you’ve set. The trick to making this work is to set expectations about what they can do/can’t do early and often. Do that and you’re golden.

#2 — Internal Feedback

We’ve all been in the situation where somebody on the team insists on a change or improvement in the project that blew up the scope. Afterwards, when you’re pressed by management to justify the extra week of work it becomes clear that you didn’t actually need to do any of it. The client never noticed it, certainly didn’t mention it… The scope creep came from the team.

Unlike client feedback, which can grow the value of the project and account when properly managed, internal feedback mostly (not always!) has the inverse effect of depleting the profit margin. It’s why managing the type and timing of feedback applies to your internal stakeholders just as much as it does your clients, but you need to take a different approach with the team.

By the time a client commissions a project, they have done at least some of the work aligning stakeholders within their organisation around the project vision and goals in order to secure a budget. That same organisation around the vision and goals hasn’t been established in the team until the producer actually does the work creating such alignment.

Working without this alignment is the single biggest cause we have seen driving internal scope creep. Everything flows from purpose. Confusion about why we’re doing what we are doing is where conflict and chaos ensues. When a suggestion for new features, improvements or tweaks are understood by some but not others, it’s because your team has a different or even competing idea about what you’re trying to achieve.

So! How do you decide whether or not to do that thing your teammate suggested? How do you know if it’s really a problem?

Level Setting

The value of producers is delivering value to all players. So when you kick off the project, don’t stop at setting just the client goals. Surface the goals of the team and the studio as well.

Why are we (meaning the studio, team, individual) doing this project? What do we want to get out of it? Is it simply about making money? Are we hoping to try some new method or approach? Do we want to help team member X up skill in some specific tech?

When it comes to decisions about the work specifically, task the group to get to a shared understanding of where you want to push boundaries and where you need to play it safe.

Sliders can create a shared understanding of what matters by striking the right balance between opposites.

The impact of level setting is that everyone on the team has a shared understanding about what you want to achieve. Once you’ve established that, it’s really easy to decide whether you should do that extra thing your teammate or manager is proposing — you just need to ask whether doing it will push you closer to the goals, or pull you in the other direction, and thereby giving you the ammo you need to just say no.

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