Get addicted to curiosity

Feedback is dead. Long live feedback! Here’s some feedback for you: feedback is a red herring. Feedback is an elusive, somewhat repulsive, and sometimes destructive tactic to direct employees towards higher performance. Managers have been schooled for the past 25 years to make feedback a central aspect of their people practices, under the great intention of helping workers see where their efforts are on track and where they are not. It’s often presented under the guise of “development” where employees grow and improve in their careers by knowing what they are not doing right. For the most part, I believe these efforts are intended to help people perform better, but I think the whole concept of feedback is a wild goose chase… a fallacy built on outdated concepts of people and work.

Feedback is a machine language

The root of the problem is that most companies are designed in the industrial model of work where they don’t care much about what their people think of them. Henry Ford (who will serve as our poster child) is famously attributed with the quote “Check your brains at the gate” because he supposedly wanted people to simply follow established procedures and not mess up the assembly line. This worked really well back then to get consistency, scale, and efficiency but has some serious downsides for current organizations that depend on knowledge, creativity, and communication.

We’re now clearly beyond the Industrial Age and smack in the middle of the Idea Economy. And since ideas come from people (not machines), we should adjust our language and use better terms to describe how people behave while working together.

Feedback is for robots

According to Marshall Goldsmith, the top guru of the executive coaching world, there are only two problems with feedback: 1. People don’t want to hear it, and 2. People don’t want to give it. Well, that explains why we have formal processes and lots of rules to make sure feedback is given in a typical company. In his book, What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, Goldsmith provides lots of good advice and useful tips on how to manage feedback successfully. In it, he agrees that the term “feedback” should be changed, so he suggests we use “feed forward.” (Pardon me, and I mean no disrespect, but there’s got to be a better term.)

Feedback is not a human word—it’s a machine word. It emerged as a verb in the mid-1860s in descriptions of mechanical processes and in 1909, Physics Nobel laureate Karl Ferdinand Braun used the term “feed-back” as a noun to refer to undesired coupling between components of an electronic circuit. It jumped into the language of business organizations in the late 1970s as systems thinking began to influence management practices.

You might think it’s just semantics, but to get a more human and less robotic understanding of this situation, let’s start with the terms we use to describe key roles people play at work in a typical industrial organization: executive, manager and employee. Executives set direction, managers direct implementation, and employees accomplish tasks. This is a “top-down,” or hierarchical structure, that works exceptionally well when a market opportunity is clear, a product is established, and execution at scale is the primary function of the corporation. Feedback is what happens when a manager tells an employee that his work is not aligned with the plan. This is a method of control and mimics the operations of a mechanical process perfectly (i.e. a thermostat is a feedback mechanism for a furnace).

In business or life situations where creative output is required (i.e., direction is unknown or ambiguous, a sufficient answer has not been found to solve a problem, or existing tactics are no longer working effectively) a mechanical process is ineffective because there is nothing to control. These situations require human power to discover and invent a path forward—or create.

Curiosity is a positive addiction

So here’s another analysis of feedback. There’s only one problem with feedback: it doesn’t describe what creative people do at work. Creative people are curious. In fact, they are addicted to curiosity. They never stop asking questions and they use what they find out to explore the world, to learn and to grow. They can’t help themselves. As a direction is being laid out they get antsy and before you know it, their hands go up and a question blurts out. Growth is exciting and releases positive chemicals in your body that amp you up. Often the effect comes from a simple question like, “Why?” In a hierarchical organization, this is shut down and the person is considered a problem because they are challenging authority. In a creative organization, questions fuel forward progress.

Being curious is an easy thing to imagine yourself doing. Being concerned about doing a good job, helping others, and making a difference in the world comes naturally to most of us because they are fundamental desires of being human. On a more basic level, being curious about how you are perceived by others is key to social survival.

Here are some examples of questions curious people ask: What do you think? How can we make these things happen? Do you have any suggestions for how I could do this better?

Curiosity is something that is innate to everyone; it’s an attitude, a mindset, or a drive to explore and discover. However, being effectively curious does take some focus and practice.

Being effectively curious

First, recognize that you can be curious along a spectrum, from immediate to long-term, and the types of questions you might ask are different for each end of the spectrum. Immediate curiosity is “in the moment” and long-term curiosity is more reflective and periodic. In the moment, you ask very specific questions and explore options for next steps as a result of an immediate action. A question as simple as, “How does this feel to you?” will bring you new insights from others in the same moment. Or you can play a little game called “likes and wishes.” What do you like about this? What do you wish about this? The intent behind these types of questions is to explore and expand, not to confirm or deny. That’s being curious versus being defensive or obsessive.

Occasionally, you step back to see if you are making progress toward a longer-term goal by asking questions about patterns in your experience. This is the long-view about big picture things in your life or business. In this mode, you are asking, “Is this really what I should be doing with my time?”

Second, you need to make it easier for others to satisfy your curiosity. Nobody responds well to sharp inquisition or challenging questions without a little context. A question like, “Why’d you do that?” Can actually shut somebody down and provoke an answer like, “None of your business!” When you ask a question, help people answer you by expressing your goal, desire, or intent. This converts people to collaborators who are helping you solve a problem versus give you the answer. It also ensures that the advice you get is aligned with where you want to go. As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” Without some intention, you will get such a broad array of input from others that you can’t make sense of it.

Finally, recognize that sometimes people are shy about sharing their thoughts because they aren’t sure why you really need their advice, and there’s some social risk in their sharing critical opinions. What if you get offended and your relationship is damaged by their critique? What if they get a reputation for being a jerk? Or perhaps they haven’t noticed any issues with your approach, and they can’t think of anything to offer. So it’s very helpful to provide an invitation to the discussion. This serves as an opening in your own thinking and encourages others to offer more than a platitude like “looks good!”

You’ve probably heard someone ask, “How am I doing?” only to get a simple response like, “Fine!” This is not a valuable learning exchange, and the burden to improve it is on the asker of the question, not the provider of the answer. Curiosity drives you to a more involved exploration. If you want to know how you are doing, you have to help someone share her opinion in a sequence that leads to a meaningful exchange:

1. Express intent (I’m trying to…)

2. Disclose a concern (but I’m concerned that…)

3. Invite input (can you help with this?)

4. Explore with curiosity (how would you do it?)

Do this with several people and you’ll have a rich set of ideas to help you make good decisions and accomplish your goals, which will lead you to an ever-stronger addiction to curiosity.

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Focus your feedback

There’s one thing I’ve found that separates good feedback from bad.  Really!  Just one: more focused questions generate higher quality responses. Usually you get dead air and blank stares when you ask a generic question like, “Does anyone have any feedback for me?” The typical response, “Uh, fine… uh, really great… yeah, good job!”

Typical response to a generic request for feedback. From:

It’s a lot of work to give someone good feedback, and most people simply aren’t prepared when you spring it on them like that. Remember, the burden of gathering feedback falls on you, not the provider. So make it easier for others to help you out by asking more focused questions. After you ask a focused question, behave like a curious four-year-old and ask, “Why, why, why, why?” to get underneath surface level generalities to real opinions that help you grow.

Of course if you really don’t want to know how you can grow, and are just asking so you can say you did, you need to return to GO (do not collect your $200) and start over with why it’s important to get feedback in the first place.  See more on that in my post Get Some Grit. Don’t waste your time (or other people’s energy) by asking generic, open ended questions. They don’t work.  For more on why, see my post Ambiguity kills feedback.

Here are some tips for getting focused feedback:

Focused questions generate more complex (valuable) answers

1. Use good manners:
Be curious, persistent, patient, and grateful.  Feedback is a gift, but you have to wrap it yourself.  When you ask one question, follow it up with a deeper, probing question to help the person in his/her thinking.  Something like: “Thanks for that. Do you think if I try that next time I’ll get better results?”  Followed by, “Okay, sounds good.  Has that worked for you?”

2. Focus on priority and purpose:
Ask high level questions that help you determine if you are working on the right things.  For example: “If I do these three things well, do you think I’ll be successful?  Or: “Which of these five things would you do first?”

3. Seek advice before you act:
Sometimes it’s easier to give an opinion before an action has occurred because there’s no implication of judgment. Use questions like, “How would you approach this project?” After you gather advice from several perspectives, review for patterns of agreement and disagreement. Follow up with another round of questions to get advice on the patterns you’ve found.  “I have two opposing ideas on how to approach this.  Which one do you like better?”

4. Invite critique on approach and impact:
Cue feedback by asking for direct opinions that leave no room for one word replies. Bad: Do you like this? Better: How could this presentation be more clear? Best: On slide three, how could I present this concept better?  For critique on the value of your efforts, ask about your impact on the person, team, or organization.  Questions like: “Was my contribution what you expected?”  “How could I have helped our team accomplish more?”  Or, “What could I have done to increase our results by 10%”

5. Cross-pollinate good ideas: Share what someone else has told you to jump-start their thinking and generate discussion.  “I was talking with Dave about this and he said…”  This helps the person you ask learn something about another colleague too.

Final thought: even when you ask a very precise opening question, you are still likely to get a simple answer.  Successful learners ask several polite follow up questions to help those around them warm up to their situation and be more helpful.  Don’t be satisfied with someone’s first answer.


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Goals are a natural part of work

You can’t score without a goal.  But, compared to other high performance environments (like sports), typical work environments don’t provide enough clarity or focus.  This ambiguity causes people to conserve effort and/or waste energy on the wrong things, leading to lower engagement and lower performance.


GOAL! (from wikimedia commons)

Psychologists have discovered much about how our brain handles goals.  One of the defining traits of the human species is our ability to choose what we will do and how we will do it… that is, to create goals.  Goals are central to grit, which leads to greater happiness, which in turn is a source of high performance.

Goals are simply a way to clarify expectations and keep track of agreements about your work, and can help answer these critical performance questions:

  • Am I doing the right work?
  • Is the work I’m doing good enough?

You should use goals to discuss the potential of your work and the progress you are making (or not) towards them.  In their best form, goals are not administrative or bureaucratic processes.  Rather, they are vehicles that help you carry work forward.  An individual or a leader may initiate a goal, but in either case, both people should be invited into the discussion.  In fact, goals can serve as a “boundary object” to engage several people with different perspectives as your advisors, creating the basis for a continual 360 degree dialog.

You can increase transparency and efficiency in your organization by sharing goals, and you might gather them together for a “roll-up” to create a big picture of how everyone is working together.  But keep them lightweight and flexible, as they are most useful in the form of a natural conversation about what you are doing and how you are doing it.

Don’t let goal processes and templates (like SMART goals) overcome the natural simplicity of goals.  They can be written on post-its, scribbled on a napkin, or entered into a web service like Rypple.  The key is that you think about and discuss what’s important in your work and capture it in a very simple statement that has meaning to you.

Key questions for generating goals:

  • What is needed by the business/client?
  • What am I prepared (ready and able) to do?
  • What will I need to accomplish this work properly?
  • Who is impacted by this work and what are their needs?
  • How will I know it is complete?

Goals make it easier to gather feedback:

Think of goals as a “prototype” of the future you can use to gather feedback.  You can ask three kinds of questions about a goal to help you deliver high quality work that others value:

1. Focus- use one or more goals to ask your boss, client, and colleagues if they think you are working on the right things.  Compare them to expectations set out for you by company level mission/vision statements and job level requirements like a job description.

2. Advice- use a goal to ask others for input on how they would approach the task.  When you do this before you act, you make it easier for others to give their full opinion about the “right way” to do something.

2. Critique- use a goal to ask others their opinion on your results.  It’s easier to get feedback if you show what you were hoping to accomplish (with a goal), as it allows people to focus their opinions on the gaps between your intent and the actual results.

For more on this topic see my post Set homerun goals.


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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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Feedback starts with you

For the past several months I’ve been closely observing situations where people give and receive feedback, and I’m starting to get some good insights.  It’s still a puzzle to me why feedback feels like a punch in the gut to so many people, when it is an essential component of learning and growth.  So we’re still keeping an eye on that.  In the mean time, here’s some of the latest musings and suggestions:

1. ) You First! People who ask for feedback by disclosing a concern get better results.  Let your providers know that you know you are not perfect and give them an opening like, “I think I talked way too much in the meeting today, do you think I was effective?”  Disclosure reduces the social risk that others feel when asked to tell you something could be better about your performance.  Without disclosure people will take the safe route and give you very little useful advice.

flickr image by redcrashpad

flickr image by redcrashpad

2.) Ask for Help. It is human nature to help each other, and this natural desire seems present at a very early age.  Framing your request for feedback as a need for assistance makes it easier for others to jump in.  It also signals that you are on an authentic mission of growth, which inspires others to act on your behalf.

3.) Be Persistent. Most opening requests for feedback go unanswered or get a generic response like, “Oh, you were fine.” This could be because the person has not formed a useful opinion, or because they aren’t sure you really want to know what they think (the real truth).  So you have to ask again (and again) and help your providers develop their advice for you in the process.

4.) Be Ready! You know feedback is good for you, but so far as I can tell, nobody really likes hearing the specifics of how they could do better.  So you have to be ready when someone uncovers a blind spot or gives you a critical opinion.  Take deep breaths, respect their perspective, and include it in a larger pattern of input you are receiving from several other people, over time.  It’s just their opinion, don’t over react.

Growth is a process, it takes time, and learning how you could be better at anything isn’t usually the easy way out.  Take a cue from elite athletes who have direct, specific, and repetitive feedback on every move they make.  After awhile, it’s just part of your routine and you realize you’re not going to lose your job, friends, and family just because you got some room to grow.

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What’s your story?

Stories are a natural way to explain who you are and what you need; and your story helps others connect with you and provide support.  In exchange, other people’s stories help you understand what they need and decide if you can help them out.  So stories are a great source of connections between people.

As such, you should take great care in sharing your stories and spend time reflecting about them. If you go around saying everything is fine, you are not likely to get a lot of support from others because they’ll assume you don’t need anything.  On the other hand, if you are always saying everything is all messed up and you are overwhelmed, it’s like “the boy who cried wolf,” and you will not get much help because people assume their efforts won’t really make a difference for you.

Your story should have gradually more specific versions

Your story should have gradually more specific versions

Before you lump this post into the “it’s all about me” category of pop culture, consider this:  it’s pretty selfish to assume that others will know your story without you offering it.  We all know hundreds of people, and keeping track of all of their stories is a complex task.  You can make it easier on others by having your own story worked out and sharing it appropriately. And you have to listen and respond to others or you will be seen as a taker, not a partner.

Knowing and sharing your story is not the same as bragging about yourself, this is more about being interesting.  I love this blog post by russell davies, where he suggests, to be interesting, be interested.

To get your story together, start by answering a few simple questions:

  • What are you doing now and how is it going for you?
  • What have you done in the past, and how did it help form you?
  • What lessons have you learned along the way?
  • What do you want to be doing next?  And next after that?
  • What are your hopes for your life and the world around you?

Think of your story as a nautilus shell with the whole shell being a high level version of you and each compartment being a gradually more specific situational version of you.

Even if you are not sure how to answer one or more of these questions, that tells a lot about who you are and what kind of support you need from others.

Share the answers to these questions in small bits and weave them through your conversations with others… few people really want to hear a long monologue.

Pay attention to how your story comes across to others.  Are you always overwhelmed, or frustrated, or stressed out?  Over time, people will perceive your self-talk as your personal brand.  Be careful that it represents the real you.

An authentic story makes it easier for others to work with and around you, and produces a lot of serendipitous goodness that helps you along your way.

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Get some grit

“Setbacks don’t discourage me” is the best single sentence I’ve read in a long time to describe why people succeed.  This quote comes from an article about Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is studying grit. It comes from extensive research exploring traits other than intelligence that are good predictors of future success.  Despite much evidence to the contrary, we are culturally stuck on the idea that intelligence is critical to success (it’s not really that important!).

I don’t know about you, but I associate the word grit with John Wayne, and the movie True Grit.  Grit, according to the University of Pennsylvania “grit study” is defined as passion and perseverance for long term goals. Gritty individuals have consistent interests over time and pursue goals even in the face of failure.  I guess the long term goal in the movie was justice, but John Wayne is surely the epitome of “set backs don’t discourage me.”

The persona of grit

The popular persona of grit

Grit isn’t just about stubborn perseverance – it’s also about finding a goal that can sustain your interest for years at a time.  According to the UPenn study, grittier people are more satisfied with their lives. The article mentioned above goes on to connect grit with the work of Carol Dweck describing the importance of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset as it relates to one’s own talent.

After many years fumbling around with leadership development, learning & development, organization development, and early childhood development, I can say that I’m pretty comfortable with the idea that growth is a critical component of success. Growth is not magic, it’s a process that takes time, energy, and support.

Keys to Grit:

  • Commitment to clear, long-term goals/vision/future state.
  • Constant connection with other people for ideas/input (to overcome setbacks).  That’s right we’re back to feedback again!

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Ready for some feedback?


UPDATE: for more tips on feedback check out the JFX Feedback category.

Last week we held the first session of the Rypple Learning Collaborative over at Mozilla in Mountain View.  We had participation from Method Home, Pixar, The Federal Reserve Bank, Kiva, Littler Mendelson, Electronic Arts, the Stanford d.School, Facebook, IDEO, and Mozilla.

We hope this effort generates some new insights and ideas that help people do a better job asking for and giving feedback.  So, we spent much of our first time together  sharing our direct experiences with people giving and receiving feedback and generating a list of observations about what seems to work and what doesn’t.


Feedback involves 3 roles, not just 2

Feedback involves 3 roles, not just 2

We framed our discussions with the idea that feedback involves not only the person asking/receiving and the person giving/providing, but a “crowd” of people around that pair.  Traditionally, much of the attention given to this topic is on the mechanics of the interaction between the two obvious players.  We included the third role to push our assumptions with a social systems view.

We all shared stories describing real feedback situations to help us recognize some patterns in real behavior.  Once we get a good picture of how people actually behave (not how they should behave), we will try to uncover what works well and what causes people problems.

An early insight from our shared stories is that it makes a positive impact on a feedback exchange when a person is ready for it.  That is, when a person is asking for feedback, they seem to be more able to handle it well than when a person gives it.  So this prompts the question, “What makes someone ready for feedback?”

Our next step is for LC members to begin conducting feedback experiments within their organizations.  From these experiments, we will expand our observations and gather more ideas to push our thinking.   We’ll start posting them on the Rypple Effect blog in a few weeks.

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Ambiguity kills feedback

I hear from lots of people that it’s hard to get feedback. The top five reasons I’ve gathered:

  1. They don’t have time
  2. They don’t want to hurt my feelings
  3. They weren’t paying close enough attention to give me details
  4. They’re afraid to be seen as a critic (or bitchy) (or mean)
  5. They don’t respond to my request (usually by email)

Sound familiar?  Seems right to me… why would anyone want to give you feedback with all of those great excuses?  The risks involved for people to help are pretty big because most requests for feedback involve a great deal of ambiguity.   Ambiguity means that the potential downsides to getting involved with you outweigh the benefits of helping you, and their social radar starts going off, “avoid, avoid, avoid!”

People are more likely to give you feedback if you remove ambiguity from the situation by doing two things:

1. Share your intentions. This is about being transparent, but also about being super clear.  For more on this distinction, check out John Maeda’s post at What were you hoping to accomplish in the action you are asking about?  Say something like, “I was hoping to get everybody on board for this project today.  Do you think I was successful?  What worked?  What didn’t?”  This gives your feedback partner an invitation and a point of focus for a useful response. Sharing your intentions allows them to be short and sweet, and dispels fears of being out of tune with your needs, or thinking too hard, or getting bogged down in a long emotional debrief.

photo by Andreas Sundgren on Flickr

photo by Andreas Sundgren on Flickr

2. Ask for help, but be specific.  Being seen as a helpful person is good for someone’s reputation.  But according to social proof theory, people are more likely to respond if you ask them individually, in a specific way.  Otherwise, they will wait and see if someone else will give help, leaving you with no help.  Studies show that people will walk by a seriously injured person on the street simply because others are walking past him.  The ambiguity of the situation stuns them into no response.

“Is he a homeless man sleeping?”  “Is this man dead?”  “Is this man injured?” (I really can’t get involved with this!)

When the injured person breaks the pattern by pointing to a specific passer-by and saying something like, “Hey you, my leg is broken, can you call 911?”  The response rate is above 90%.  Again the source of confusion for potential helpers and their lack of response is ambiguity.  When there is not a clear call for help, people will general take cues from others around them before risking a response.  When nobody is helping, nobody will help.

Use these two tips together and you make it much easier for someone else to give you valuable feedback by removing ambiguity from the situation.

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What’s really wrong with performance reviews

I’m sure many of you have seen the recent column by Jeff Pfeffer in BusinessWeek.  It’s a very nice analysis of the flaws in corporate performance reviews.  I respect and agree with everything he says in that article. And, I think there’s a more fundamental issue underlying the failure of performance reviews.  The whole concept is backwards.

Photo by Charlie//Alexandra White on Flickr

Photo by Charlie//Alexandra White on Flickr

It’s designed to manage performance as if it could actually be managed.  In order to actually manage performance, a manager would have to be present while the employee works a great deal of the time.  When a person starts to veer off “best practices,” the manager could then intervene with helpful comments and suggestions, or in extreme cases simply whack the person with a ruler to keep him in line.

Sounds crazy doesn’t it?  Managers can’t do that, they’ve got better managerial things to do.  Performance reviews are designed as if people were machines that need annual maintenance to fix broken parts or an upgrade to new software.

In a human-centered model, we’d assume that an adult worker of normal abilities would be able to understand the task at hand, and apply skill and judgment to meet work goals.  In this system, we’d assume that the person would be motivated to do a good job and be curious about how to do it better.  This might be a stretch too, but given the choices, I think this approach has more potential.

Yes, it’s a major shift in paradigm, but it’s one that aligns with the people who are already doing well, not with the people who are not.  That is, people who are successful at work and in life tend to ask questions, learn, and grow. Why don’t we design processes, tools, and practices that support the more successful people, not prop up the weakest links?  Call me Darwin if you will, but I believe this approach will help those who aren’t behaving in the most successful strategies shift towards them (not get left behind).

For a great example of this approach (helping successful people do what they already do better) is Rypple.  It’s a platform for asking questions and giving feedback that’s driven by the only person who really cares about your performance… you.

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