Building A Culture of Feedback

A few weeks ago, a student commented to a colleague and me how much they appreciated the “culture of feedback” at Tsai CITY. I was struck by the comment — both delighted and deeply curious about what exactly a “culture of feedback” meant, and how we’d come to build that culture with our students.

We do ask for feedback a lot here at CITY. We ask students to complete feedback surveys after events and programs, and sometimes midway through them. We’re starting off more and more workshops by asking who is in the room and what they’re seeking, and wrap up by asking if we’ve delivered. We set aside time at the end of our in-depth programs for facilitated talk-back sessions. We encourage students to pop their heads in anytime. We send follow-up surveys months after programs, to follow up on long-term effects.

We are still figuring out the best ways to gather meaningful feedback. However, since CITY launched, we have put a lot of time and energy into responding to the data we have — and we’ve seen the impact that responsiveness can have.

Why we care about feedback

In many ways, we’re a startup ourselves: while we’re within a university that is hundreds of years old, Tsai CITY isn’t even two years old yet. We’re still growing and defining who we are. As we engage in that process, gathering feedback is essential. We believe that students have invaluable insights about how we can best serve them and contribute to the Yale community — and we wouldn’t be walking our talk if we didn’t actively and meaningfully seek to engage with them, value their perspectives, and truly incorporate their advice and feedback into the design and delivery of our services.¹

We tell students that a crucial part of the innovation process is talking to the people they want to serve, and working to understand their needs. We teach that this isn’t a one-time thing, but rather an ongoing practice of communication with your audience, using insights from that communication to iterate on your offering, and changing along with that audience as their needs change.

We also want to operate as an organization from a place of learning and experimentation, using the same approach that we encourage student innovators to adopt. We’re trying to build something new, and something with innovation at its core — something that will change over time, through constant iteration from both staff and students.

Seeking feedback during the planning process

One of the core structures that helps us to incorporate feedback is the Student Advisory Board (SAB). The SAB consists of students from every school at Yale, who advise our work and give feedback on decision-making — from our programs and our marketing to our community norms, our data collection methods, and the perception of CITY across campus. The SAB is an incredible opportunity for us to better understand our students, and the range of perspectives they bring from around the university. They serve as our in-house experts on how students will perceive and interact with us (or won’t — and how we can encourage folks to walk through our doors for the first time).

One example of a program built in response to SAB feedback is our upcoming series of 101 workshops, like Innovation 101. The series is based on the SAB’s feedback that it can be hard to tell what level CITY programs are at or what background in a subject is needed for participation, as well as concerns that folks entirely new to innovation and entrepreneurship don’t know where to start. We’re testing the series out this semester, and we’ll look to the feedback of participants and the SAB to figure out if this does fill that gap — or if we need to keep iterating.

Staff members with a Student Advisory Board member at a board meeting.

Making real-time adjustments

In the first application-based program I led at CITY, our Food Intensive, we brought 23 students together and in the first session tried to have a group discussion about ethical decision-making for food entrepreneurs. Using this intense exercise as a kick-off resulted in crickets. It was a complicated topic for a group who had never interacted with each other, and some who were very new to the world of food. At the end of the session, my co-leaders and I quickly and unanimously decided to shift all future sessions to be based on small group discussions, and to find ways to gather feedback on how best to format this brand-new program.

Several weeks later, a student in the Food Intensive expressed surprise that we had quickly responded to the dynamics of the sessions, and been willing to drastically change things up. Feedback was implemented in a time frame that she could see: we were willing to shift things week to week, rather than waiting for the next semester or the next year. For college students who often evaluate their academic courses at semester’s end and don’t retake them, I can imagine that it’s unusual to see feedback implemented. We can respond sooner — in a way that can matter to those giving feedback, not just to their successors.

Constantly asking for feedback and gathering information allows us to very rapidly iterate upon and improve our programs. It has helped us create a nimbleness in our approach that allows for very specific tailoring to a given cohort — like understanding that we had too large a group for intense discussions right off the bat.

Building in space for change

That said, that kind of tailoring can be quite time-consuming, especially when on short notice and when it is within collaborative projects with multiple stakeholders. One of the ways we’re addressing this is to build in meetings, work time, and “open slots” for adjustments ahead of time — scheduling in the unexpected, so to speak.

In the Accelerator program that my colleague Nya Holder and I co-lead, we’ve built in a number of opportunities and channels for feedback, and hold a workshop session “empty” to be able to include topics that a given cohort needs most. Each team in the program works with an Innovation Advisor (a graduate student with relevant expertise), who reports back to us weekly on how their team is doing, and what additional resources they might need — giving us regular updates on how we might need to shift the group sessions to be most valuable to the participants. We give the teams options for submitting feedback — an anonymous feedback channel for use at any time (as well as an open-door policy), and a mandatory midpoint survey to track their experience and how we can optimize the program. We also have a giant post-it present at every session, where participants can write resources they’re seeking or sessions they’d like to see. At the beginning of each session, we make suggestions for each item — like office hours with a Mentor in Residence, or resources available on our Wiki. Eventually, we also choose a topic for our open workshop slot, and organize an additional session based on that input. It’s a way for us to communicate with a large group, and to see patterns arise that we can respond to. It also gives students the sense that we’re here to serve them, and trust them to know and ask for what they need.

At the heart of building a culture of feedback is creating an environment where students trust us — because they know we’re listening, and that we truly value their responses. When student feedback is incorporated in palpable time frames and in clearly visible ways, it contributes to building positive relationships. From what I’ve learned in working with students here at CITY, it’s that ongoing relationship-building that eventually defines a culture.

Emma Funk is the Social Innovation Fellow at Tsai CITY.


  1. This approach is informed by the work of CITY Innovator in Residence Baljeet Sandhu and the Knowledge Equity Initiative.