Is Feedback Always Good?

The secret sauce of Agile is Frequent Feedback.  But is feedback always a good thing?  Do I need feedback as I’m baking a cake?  As I’m painting a portrait? Let’s unpack feedback and see if we can determine when feedback is a good thing and when it’s not so good.

I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee… I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”
— Steve Wozniak

How can Feedback Help you?

Things that you are producing for someone else.  If someone else needs to accept the work you are doing, the more often you check in with them, the better.  This includes the marketplace of customers. Even DaVinci solicited feedback when he was commissioned to do work.  His commissioners weren’t always happy with his pace, but that’s a different story. If you are doing work that’s success or failure is dependent on someone else’s opinion, you better get their opinion as often as possible.  If it’s a large customer base, get a pulse on them too.

Things that converge on a known endpoint.  When I was pregnant, I went to the doctor for check-ups which are essentially feedback.  My blood sugar was high, I was able to change my eating to increase my chances of having a healthy baby.  (she is 12 now, thank you!) There was a known endpoint, I wasn’t unsure whether this pregnancy could lead to a new car, a pet hamster or a vacation.  I was planning on having it end with a baby.

Things that require work from a large group of people.  If your work is coordinated amongst several people, the more frequently you sync, the better the outcome.  Harley Davidson found that there was no correlation between project stages and success, but there was a near-perfect correlation between the number of feedback loops and project success.  Harley-Davidson saw great results when they switched from focusing on the process steps and instead focused on increasing feedback loops.

High uncertainty or high risk.  If your work is uncertain or risky, you’ll want to work towards reducing risk or uncertainty throughout the lifecycle.  Find ways to test for increased certainty or decreased risk. For example, if you are building a car, your biggest risk is that it won’t run and perhaps your biggest uncertainty is the new type of engine that has never been used before.  Get that engine in a frame held together with twist ties if you must, but get that car driving around a parking lot as quickly as possible so you can get feedback on how it runs.

When can feedback hurt you?

When the outcome is predictable.  If your work is repeatable and predictable, there's no reason to seek feedback.  With some work, the cost of feedback is higher than the benefit.  For example, if I'm baking a souffle, it needs to get in the oven and be left alone.  If I disturb my souffle, or open the oven, the whole thing will collapse.

When your work is so groundbreaking that people don’t understand it.  What if Picasso asked for feedback on his first cubist paintings?  I’ve read that if the tv show “All in the Family” had gone to a focus group it would never have aired.  Some things just need to be put out there into the world.

Your work is hard for people to process.  A friend of mine delivers training that shakes up people’s thinking.  She doesn’t ask for feedback. “They need to sit with what they learned for a while.  When they walk out of the room they don’t yet know what they think. Feedback at that time would be useless.”  Similarly, if you are serving subpoenas or if you’re a hit-man, maybe feedback is not your best metric. (Does this blog go to many hit-men?)

When your work answers to a higher purpose. When Camila Cabello wanted to leave her singing group, Fifth Harmony, her mom asked her “Would you leave even if not a single person buys your record?”  Her answer was “yes”, she has music that she wanted to make, whether or not anyone wanted to hear it. If your work follows an inner purpose or mission, then you don’t need feedback, you’re not counting clicks.  Many dreams are crushed by feedback. Don’t ask, just go do it.

How has feedback helped or hurt you?  Let us know!