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to help people perform better, but I think the whole concept of feedback is a wild goose chase… a fallacy built on outdated concepts of people and work.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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Innovation is a natural result of being human

Our world is faced with a never-ending list of problems we’d all like solved. Some are massive public health and environmental issues that overwhelm us with their complexity. Some are daily nuisances that require simple adjustments in order to put things right. Big or small, complex or simple, when someone makes an improvement to a process, practice, tool or service, he/she is being innovative. Innovation is a natural result of being human. We humans are well-designed to solve problems and adapt to changes in our environment by actively “messing” with the resources we have on hand to improve our condition.

Caught in the rain (Darrell Wong/Fresno Bee)

Watch anyone adjust to an unexpected weather “situation” and you will see what I mean about innovation being core to human nature. People make hats and coats out of plastic bags or newspapers, wrap odd things around them to keep warm, and are suddenly willing to lose major style points when caught unprepared. One time my daughter came home from school and was locked out of the house. The day had been warm and sunny, so she had no coat, just a t-shirt and shorts. As the sun went down and it got colder, she got pretty uncomfortable. By the time I pulled into the driveway after work, she was huddled in a beach towel she had scrounged from the clothesline, and had buried herself under the cushions of our patio furniture. That’s making the most of the resources around you to improve your situation!

Another kid might have been curious about “alternative home entry methods” and found that the second floor porch door was unlocked. But in order to implement that strategy, she would have to be confident in her climbing abilities and weigh the discomfort of being cold against the risk of falling and getting seriously hurt. Given the low threat of hypothermia (her condition was uncomfortable, but not life threatening) I think she made a wise choice with the cushions and towel approach.

Innovation is not about making wild bets on the future or being a whacky creative who dreams fanciful ideas. It’s a careful assessment of where you are versus where you want to be, followed by a series of actions to close that gap. It doesn’t hurt to inject fanciful imagination (I’m sure my daughter was dreaming about a big warm fire or a fluffy comforter wrapped around her), because in those dreams we find the seeds of ideas we can actually implement.  Check out my previous post for a definition of these core skills.

Children are a great source of insight on our natural propensity for innovation. With less concern for negative social consequences, they are built to imagine and explore, and they do it all the time. My son plays with LEGOs on a near constant basis, and it’s amazing to watch his deep level of engagement as he sorts through hundreds of tiny plastic pieces to find just the right one for his latest project.

He’s built many LEGO models by following the prescribed approach in the instructions (he calls the booklets “maps”). His experience with those pre-built models has given him many core components to build on as he invents new structures. He knows how wheels go together, where a driver might sit, how to build a wing from scratch, and how to make a tower that won’t fall down. Mixing and matching these underlying components is a great way to jump-start a new idea or accidentally discover that there are more ways to build a spaceship than the “maps” tell you.

The keys in his natural innovativeness are his willingness to explore and his quick adjustment and continued effort when things don’t work out as imagined. When a structure is not built to handle real play, the feedback is immediate… it falls apart! His natural desire to play out-weighs his frustration with poor construction, so he keeps going.  But there are many times when he gets stuck, and in those moments the “magic” ingredient of innovation comes into play.  Humans are social, and we have a natural desire to help each other, so it’s not surprising that he asks for help almost immediately when he is stuck or frustrated.

The magic ingredient of innovation: asking for help

Sharing your problem with someone else when you are “stuck” brings new ideas and a renewed sense of excitement about what “could be”. When my son can’t figure out how to connect two awkward structures he asks his older sister (or basically anyone who’s within his vocal range) for help. At this moment he is ripe for coaching (motivated to complete his vision, frustrated by his own abilities to pull it off). I call “asking for help” the magic ingredient of innovation because it contradicts the dominant belief that invention (and subsequently innovation) result from a “lone genius” focusing on a problem nobody can solve. Surely, intense focus is a necessary component of complex problem solving, but it is rare that the answer comes from an isolated person devoid of input, discussion, or coaching.

The really big problems in our world require us to work together, applying our different perspectives, styles and modes of thinking to overcome their complexity.

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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: photo.net/photos/zbbrox

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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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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