The economics of discomfort

There’s a great post on CNET about the Future of Capitalism.  I won’t retell the whole thing here, but it provides a great answer to my previous post, If feedback is so great, why is it so hard? It’s not a direct answer, but see if this makes sense:  feedback is hard because it acknowledges that control of your future involves lots of other people. And this feels scary, arbitrary, and unpredictable.

source: wikipedia

source: wikipedia

If you are working in a job with a boss, you can work with that one person to agree on your future.  If you have a bad boss, this isn’t so great, but you can go find another more agreeable one and move on up.  This is the source of much of the negative political behavior in today’s stereotypical corporate environment.

If the future of capitalism involves recapitalizing assets that have been undervalued, then behavior strategies popularized by characters like Michael Scott of The Office are doomed.

Your talent represents a great asset… something you can trade, hedge, remix, or share to generate value that others will buy.  So you can use your talent to work in Chris Anderson’s “Free Economy” to earn a living.  But you have to invest with your asset and add value to the abundant, free resources through aggregation, synthesis, distribution, and other means of improvement.  You must use your knowledge, skill, attributes, and experience as a unique lever to create new things like a service experience, an insightful article, an assembled computer, or beautiful music.

In the days when a person worked a lifetime for a company (or a land-owner), the responsibility to take care of your talent belonged to them.  And all benefits of using your talent went to them.  In this emerging new economy, technology has enabled you to benefit directly from your talent like never before.  I won’t get into all the political scenarios being mentioned out there, but the bottom line is that individuals have increasing freedom to make something happen in their lives if they aren’t happy with the more traditional approaches to work.

But freedom comes with responsibility (darn).  And this is where the answer on feedback comes in…  markets are really good at finding stuff that works, and even better at culling out stuff that doesn’t.  Feedback is hard because it involves finding out what parts of your offer are not working for others, and often represents resistance to your aspirations.  And it’s not only your opinion that counts, it’s the opinions of the social group around you that assemble into a shared reality-of-you that count.  And feedback is the only way to discover and make sense of those opinions.

Investing with your talent in this kind of economy can be extremely uncomfortable.  As the saying goes, The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.

If feedback is so great, why is it so hard?

photo: NUT by .Luca-Italy, Flickr

photo: NUT by .Luca-Italy, Flickr

Is it just me or does this strike you as odd?  I have a Google feed that sends me a daily digest of messages that include the term feedback.  I get hundreds of them!  Many people have suggestions for how to ask for and give feedback (including me) and many people talk about why it’s so important (like this post).  I’m curious why it’s such a hot topic, yet why it’s so infrequently discussed in a positive light.  So, I’ve been trying to apply design thinking to this nut to see if I can crack open some new insights and ideas.  Here’s some of what I’m gathering.  Feel free to join in, and I’ll keep you posted as it moves along.


  • I have a friend who shares completely about what she’s thinking and seems to be very provocative in how she “pushes people’s buttons.”  For example, she has her young son get his toenails painted and lets everyone know that it’s important to do so… She rarely asks what other people think, mostly she tells stories.
  • I work with someone who rarely states his opinion, but asks amazing questions to get people to explain more about their initial comments.  When he starts to form an opinion about something he often presents it as a question (but not in an annoying, “what I hear you saying is…” kind of way).


  • Feedback is all around us, from facial expressions, to body posture, to words (and sounds).
  • People shy away from telling “the full truth” about their opinions.
  • Some people are tuned-in to other people’s reactions, suggestions, behaviors.
  • Some people seem oblivious to how they affect other people.


  • I put some post-it notes on our door at work to get people to ask questions about things I care about.  It seemed to work, and be fun.  It seems that not overstating something is more inviting to others than presenting a complete or definitive thought.
  • I’ve used Rypple to ask others questions before a meeting to help me understand what they care about and expect.  It was very easy and helped me create the agenda.

To improve my diversity of input and thinking, I’ve been reaching out to other people interested in exploring this topic, and have started a new “learning collaborative” with my friends at Rypple.  We are hosting our first design session in August and have gotten some great people from some great companies to join us.  At the first session, we’ll have folks from IDEO, Mozilla, Pixar, Method Home, the Federal Reserve Bank, Electronic Arts,, and more.  I hope this amazing collection of people working in a design process can helps get some real traction on feedback.

More learning to blog

It’s been about month since I started this blog and I’m having fun with it.  Here are some more tips I’ve gotten and things I’ve learned so far:

  • Try the 10×10 exercise: Jay Goldman suggested I think of 10 categories and then 10 posts for each of the categories before I even started.  This has proven to be great advice, I get plenty of new ideas every day (so far) but having the 10×10 framework really helps structure this space and keep my posts on target.
  • Try a series: I was inspired by Diego Rodriguez and his series on innovation.  I don’t have to post a sequel everyday, but if I’m stuck I’ve got an easy back up idea.  It also helps to think about this ahead of time and be on the look out for things that make the posts in the series more timely, tangible and relevant.
  • Readers love lists: Dan Debow suggested using bullets or numbers to help readers quickly digest content.
  • Link to others: I’m still struggling with “track backs” but I’ve found it very easy to use posts from other people to make my posts more interesting.  I connected to a comment from Diego on Twitter and he then tweeted about my post.  Got the highest volume of traffic to my blog yet!

More to come as I stumble along.

Accurate Self Awareness

I spend a lot of time talking to people about getting good feedback.  Usually, they’ve picked up somehow that everything is not going along as well as they’d like.  It could be a friend saying, “you should go talk with so-and-so, I think you two are not on the same page.”  Or, maybe it’s a boss telling you to shape up in a particular area.  Or, maybe you’ve noticed nobody will sit next to you in the cafeteria.

Humans are social animals
The human desire to achieve is outdone only by the human desire to fit in, so these kind of scenarios are usually unsettling at the core of your emotional well-being.  The “reptilian brain stem” portion of your brain starts sending signals to your body that you are in danger and you feel stress and anxiety.

Downward spiral

Downward spiral

Avoid the downward spiral
Over time, this is really bad for your body if you don’t deal with it. In the short term, this is really bad for your job because a lot of your energy is tied up in worry, defensiveness, etc.   Lots of people begin to “ping” those around them to see if this perceived threat is real.  Unfortunately, if this is not done well it feeds the problem and the spiral takes you down and then out to the market for a new job.

Tips for getting an accurate self assessment:

1. Ask better questions. A generic “how am I doing?” question usually leads to a neutral, safe response like, “fine.”  This gives you a false impression and accelerates the negative spiral by reinforcing your positive self image in the face of some legitimate concerns.  Instead of the generic, open-ended approach, ask a specific question about a specific concern you have.   See my “that’s a good question” post for some tips on this.

2. Ask the right people. In a panic situation, we tend to go to our closest allies for guidance and support.  But you need to build perspective when you are unsure, so extend your reach and ask some people you know will be more critical (helpful) and less inclined to protect you.  Having your feedback biased to your closer colleagues means your awareness is biased too.

3. Reduce risk for truthful input. Recognize that most people are not going to tell you their full critical opinion

Scaredy Cats

Scaredy Cats

because it is “risky” to do so.  They may not want to hurt your feelings, may feel their opinion is not important, may believe it’s not their place to be critical of you, or be afraid that they’ll get a reputation for being harsh or unforgiving.  Try these two ways to get the full story from others:

  • Build trust and be persistent.  Think of this like coaxing a cat out from under the bed.  Here kitty, kitty…
  • Provide an anonymous channel to you.  You can ask a friend to gather some input for you, or you can use a tool like Rypple to do it yourself.

Pondering feedback, goals, and transparency

27258052_3e374c654e_mEver notice how just knowing something is real can change your behavior?  Like when you look in a mirror and notice a piece of food from lunch stuck in your teeth?  Or you’re cruisin’ down the highway only to glance at the speedometer and notice you are going 20 MPH over the speed limit?  Most people react suddenly in these cases and make adjustments.

I find this is especially true when two other conditions are present: a clear goal which helps you know what feedback to value, and transparency of this goal (and progress toward it), which helps others help you maintain your commitment and keep you honest.

I just had a great chat with a new friend, Kate Niederhoffer, about how to put metrics in the hands of people inside organizations, along the lines of how biofeedback helps people make good health care decisions. Like how Cardionet puts a device in your chest that tracks and reports information about your heart so you can act BEFORE a big problem and get medical intervention to keep you in good shape.  For a deeper read on metrics in social systems check out Kate’s blog, social abacus.

So how can we use these ideas to help people in organizations get information early enough to act in ways that keep things in line?  So much of what is happening is subjective and hard to capture, but the more clearly we state our goals, and tap into people around us, the easier it is to recognize patterns and adjust our behaviors.

One company that is on to this issue in a big way is Rypple.  They’ve built a web-based feedback platform that can help you ask questions and aggregate input.  Then you can discuss that input with a few advisors and make adjustments in your behavior.  This is just the tip of the iceberg and I expect they will have many more cool features to make this process even easier. What if Facebook or Twitter provided more aggregation tools based on all of the input you gather from your friends and followers?  How would this change your behavior?

One more thought: organizations are so complex, how can we help people gather feedback from many streams and see patterns in easy to understand images (like your teeth in the mirror)?  Check out We Feel Fine for some inspirational ideas.