Builder Feedback and Armchair Critic Feedback

I’ve been both an armchair critic and builder over the years. I started out squarely as the former. However, I’ve come to appreciate how hard it is to actually build and ship something that adds value. So, I’ve attempted, over time, to be as constructive as possible in sharing my feedback on something someone else has built. And, a principle I’ve attempted to live by has been to only be very tough on something if I intend to spend my time and energy to help fix it.

The benefit of having been on all four sides of the table (both as a giver and receiver of both styles of criticism) is that I recognize the difference between builder feedback and armchair critic feedback. And, the one crucial difference is tone.

The armchair critic feedback takes refuge in sarcasm and typically adds some version of personal attack. So, if I had to take a swipe at myself this morning as an armchair critic, I’d say – “Seriously? Is this piece of drivel the best you can do as an employee of ____/graduate of ___?” It is hardly every constructive. And, even if you take the time to respond constructively, it is never going to be good enough.

Today’s post isn’t about how to deal with this type of feedback as that depends on the context.

But, it took me a long while to recognize this difference. And, recognizing it has been helpful in tailoring my response to it.

Why a belief in the importance of giving and receiving personal feedback is misplaced

I’d like to begin by differentiating between personal and professional feedback. When a manager or friend teaches you how to make a better PowerPoint slide, I term that as professional feedback. Professional feedback is largely useful. It helps us learn to produce output that will be well received in our particular organization. These include learning how to eat, behave and dress in a way that suits our organization’s context.

Personal feedback is, well, more personal. You know exactly what I’m talking about because you have probably received personal feedback at some point in your career. And, I’ve come to believe that most personal feedback is useless. Here’s why –

1. It is impossible to give great feedback without adequate self-awareness on the part of the giver. It is hard for the receiver to take and use feedback without adequate self-awareness as well.

2. Even assuming you have two self-aware people having a conversation about feedback, there needs to be a level of trust, intimacy and vulnerability in the relationship. This takes time and isn’t easily achieved even in teams that work together for long periods of time.

3. The more self-aware you become, the more you understand 3 truths. First, your biases significantly color your feedback. Second, it is easy to give bad feedback and very hard to say something insightful. Third, it is better to show people the way than to tell them how it should be done.

4. Once you realize this, you realize that your time is best spent role modelling what you term as exemplary behavior – based on your value system since it’s all relative and since your values won’t resonate with everyone else. Over time, you’ll attract people who share similar values. When you attract and work with people with similar values, it is easier to build trusting relationships. And, once you build trusting relationships, feedback becomes a normal conversation. It isn’t a big deal. It is just part of the natural candor and vulnerability that you bring to the table every time you sit down.

Most professional organizations and schools today focus on the importance of giving and receiving feedback. I think that focus is misplaced. The focus needs to be on improving self-awareness. But, therein lies the problem. Self-awareness is incredibly hard to get to. It is a journey you commit to for the long term and it is hard to measure success simply because, the further you are on the path, the more you become aware of how long there is to go. On the other hand, it is easy to measure if you are improving on metrics that track giving and receiving feedback. All you need to do is to set up feedback meetings and enjoy that feeling of progress being made.

But, just because something is easy to measure doesn’t mean it is right. And, just because something is hard to do doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem worth solving.

Interacting with a single stimulus

Every once in a while, you’re going to find yourself in a situation where a single stimulus will upset you. This could be a bad email, an angry exchange over the phone or a meeting that went awry. It could also just be a negative review or a disappointed user reacting to something you shipped.

Here’s an idea that might help – proceed with caution when reacting to a single stimulus. This is because we are wired to process negative responses with more intensity than positive responses. So, a single harsh email criticizing your recent presentation can threaten to cancel out ten positive responses. Of course, that’s if you let it.

There are a couple of ways to solve for this. First, try to get an aggregated pulse of a situation instead of focusing on one strong reaction. So, if you are picking a sushi bar, check out the average rating for the sushi bar on Yelp before diving into a single bad review. That seems natural when picking sushi bars, right? And, yet, when it comes to any kind of personal feedback, we tend to completely ignore this idea and fixate on the negative event. We need to go broad before we go deep.

Second, put extra weight on responses from practitioners or people you respect. Most people have an opinion on most things. Thanks to the proliferation of reviews online, giving feedback has become a sport these days. When you’re in the business of shipping, however, a lot of feedback is useless. This is because most feedback is given in isolation and, very few, as a result, have the level of insight required to be useful. This is where a practitioner’s view can be very useful. If someone has a track record of delivering the kind of presentation you’re seeking feedback on, pay attention. The feedback may still not be useful as we all have different styles. But, the chances of it hitting the mark are much higher.

Overall, it still comes back to the original point – beware interactions with a single stimulus. In fact, I’d even suggesting actively discounting it until you see widespread evidence that tells you otherwise.

There’s a nice quote that does this idea justice – ‘There are 7 billion people on this planet. Why, then, do we let just 1 of them ruin our day so often?’

Why indeed?

Understanding management debt

Ben Horowitz, the former CEO of Opsware and now-successful venture capitalist, has a great post on management debt. He offers a slightly deeper explanation in his excellent book – The Hard Thing About Hard Things.

I have been thinking about management debt over the past few months but didn’t have a term for it. I am now able to put the word into context and would like to share some of my lessons.

Management debt is when a leader or manager (I will stick to “leader” for simplicity) takes a call that works better for the short term than for the long term. Any such decision is equivalent to the leader taking a loan for a short term pleasure and will require the leader to pay it back with interest. The rates of interest on certain kinds of management debt are really high. In his blog post, Ben details 3 situations where he’s seen management debt –

1. Putting two in a box – Trying to keep two talented folks in his company during a reorganization by making them co-heads.
2. Over compensating a key employee when she has a better job offer because she is key to a current project.
3. No performance management or feedback process – leading to surprises when things don’t work well.

I haven’t managed a billion dollar company and, while I am sure my experiences don’t compare to those of Ben Horowitz, I have found myself guilty of using management debt multiple times without realizing it on multiple projects. And my lessons are as follows.

I. Define culture early – it is hard to change. Culture is set by a set of principles that defines your approach to work. This needs to be defined really early or things get really messed up down the line. One such example is a project I’ve lead for nearly 3 years – when we started, we took a scrappy approach towards getting things done. I figured that the focus ought to be to just get results and we’d find time later to define how we’d like to do it better. So, we took nearly a year to define our values, ways of working, etc., and just kept the habit going. And, you know what? 1.5 years later, we still haven’t gotten past our scrappiness. Heck, we don’t even know what our values are.

The extent of the damage is evident because another member this team and I are also part of 3 other project teams and we behave differently in those. Culture is powerful and is hard to change once it is set. I am still not clear how to solve the problem with the culture issues in this project – clearly, I’m still paying the interest on my management debt.

2. Create a 6 month feedback process. I’ve worked on projects where there was an attempt at weekly performance management and then run projects with no performance management. I find that a 6 month feedback process is reasonable and important. 1-3 month feedback can work okay on short engagements but feedback systems shorter than that become carrot-and-stick systems in my view and don’t give people enough time to get comfortable. If you think this is hard to do in a busy day job, I can assure this is harder when you are working on a project(s) in addition to your day job on weekends with limited time. That said, it is important. Else, you are just taking on more debt. And, I have learnt that the interest on this one is costly.

3. Create a list of management principles. As I’ve been thinking about 1 and 2, I’ve realized that what I am missing is a list of management principles. I have an implicit list but it’s clearly not been enough to provide clarity. These management principles will help you stay true to your goals and will ensure you are firm and insistent on the right things. Once you have these principles defined, don’t compromise.

I am going to explore this topic in greater depth over the next few months. More to follow on setting culture, designing feedback processes, developing management principles, and the like.