Simple rules of good feedback

Signal to others you are open to feedback by asking for it.

Based on 3 years of close observation at IDEO and Hulu; and with perspective from my friends at other companies like Rypple, Facebook, Pixar, Mozilla, and Lucas Film; I have distilled these simple rules of good feedback.

1. Ask, don’t tell. Feedback works best when it is delivered to someone who asks for it.  Being invited reduces the social risk of the giver being viewed as too critical or harsh.  And reduces the challenge of finding the right time to deliver it.  Asking for feedback is like putting out a welcome mat that signals you are open to input from others.

2. Focus on the work not the person. People are complex and very difficult (and resistant!) to label with statements like “high performer” or “lags peers.” Add in specifics about a work product/outcome and the context surrounding it, and it’s much more valuable.

3. Cast a wide net. Successful people manage a broad and diverse set of perspectives to discover patterns and develop insights about their own behavior.  If you ask a small set of people who know you well, you will probably get a biased and less trustworthy answer.

4. Don’t believe the first answer. Even with an invitation, remember that good feedback requires the giver to think deeply, and work a bit to provide something useful.  Press the first response, with further invitations like, “Can you tell me more about that?” or similar open ended probes.  If you receive generic responses like, “fine” or “I love working with you” don’t be satisfied.

5. Synthesize and iterate. Once you gather broad and diverse perspective, look at the set of opinions and find patterns across the set.  Then share the whole set with a close advisor and discuss it together.  It may prompt you to ask a more targeted question to get more actionable or focused feedback.

6. Tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This works both ways for the giver and the receiver.  You are simply wasting time if you don’t share your whole perspective as a giver or disclose that you know there are areas to explore as a receiver.  Being open and honest is what divides successful players from posers and wannabes.

Remember the whole point of feedback is personal growth, higher performance, and living a more fulfilling life!  Have fun with it.

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Stories create impact

Storytelling is a powerful mode of human interaction.  Consider what a storyteller looks like when presenting versus how someone looks when reporting the news or reading a report.  There’s emotion, action, passion.  Reports are dry and neutral.  Stories are alive and engaging. Steve Jobs is a master storyteller, and the photos of him presenting the new Apple iPad today demonstrate this well.

Kimberly White / Reuters

I’ve heard very few facts about the iPad.  Instead, I’ve heard this “magical device is a more intimate personal media experience.” Not a computer without a keyboard or an over-sized mobile phone.  These phrases might sound like “spin” if we didn’t believe the story teller to be authentic.  Perhaps many people are skeptical of Steve Jobs, and for them his story will not be compelling.  This is the challenge of incorporating stories into your everyday life.

How do you become more engaging and compelling without overdoing it and winding up as a spin-doctor?

Know your audience: Adjust what you emphasize depending on the needs of the people around you.  Consider the story of the Three Pigs.  When talking to a five year-old, you might point out the concrete details of how each house is constructed and inject humor into the interactions with the wolf.  But for a 10 year-old, you might focus on the symbolism of the big bad wolf and play up how big problems arise from misplaced priorities.  The characters, facts and sequence are the same, but the tone, tenor, and supporting elements are very different.  In either case, a neutral outline of the facts or PowerPoint bullets about what happened will leave an audience underwhelmed.

Understand your venue: Is it live? Email?  A blog?  Are you in a business or family setting?  Friends or colleagues?  Short or long-term relationships?  All of these factors should affect how you tell your story and what you say.  Do you have one chance to make an impression or will there be many days/weeks/months for someone to learn it?  I did not find a press release or message of any sort about the iPad on the Apple website today.  I learned about it weeks ago in a “leak” about what might come (foreshadowing) which created some buzz and speculation.  Then I saw the building on the news this morning and an interview from a national news show where it was mentioned.  Finally, it appeared on the Yahoo! home page as reported by someone who was there to hear the announcement.  This is great storytelling, it gets you curious and pulls you along, and leaves you wanting more.

Get to the point: All of the drama and craft in the world will be for nothing if there’s not a relevant “point” to your story.  In sales it’s called the “WIFM” (what’s in it for me?) statement you provide to answer your listener’s question.  Do you have a question to ask, something to teach, a request?  Your story should engage and inspire someone to act, so you need to be clear about how/what/when you want the action to occur.  Even stories used for entertainment (think movies, books, and songs) have a point.

Unless the point is to not have one, but that’s another story.

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