A List Apart

Menu
Nishant Kothary on the Human Web

The Politics of Feedback

“Were you going for ‘not classy’? Because if you were, that’s cool. This isn’t classy like some of your other work,” said my wife, glancing at a long day’s work on my screen.

Article Continues Below

“Yep. That’s what I was going for!” I responded with forced cheer. I knew she was right, though, and that I’d be back to the drawing board the next morning.

This is a fairly typical exchange between us. We quit our jobs last year to bootstrap an app (for lack of a better word) that we’re designing and building ourselves. I’m the front-end guy, she’s the back-end girl. And currently, she’s the only user who gives me design feedback. Not because it’s hard to find people to give you feedback these days; we all know that’s hardly the case. She’s the only one providing feedback because I think that’s actually the right approach here.

I realize this flies in the face of conventional wisdom today, though. From VC’s and startup founders emphatically endorsing the idea that a successful entrepreneur is characterized by her willingness—scratch that: her obsession with seeking out feedback from anyone willing to give it, to a corporate culture around “constructive” feedback so pervasive that the seven perpendicular lines-drawing Expert can have us laughing and crying with recognition, we’ve come to begrudgingly accept that when it comes to feedback—the more, the merrier.

This conventional wisdom flies in the face of some opposing conventional wisdom, though, that’s best captured by the adage, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Or if you’d prefer a far more contemporary reference, look no further than Steve Jobs when he talked to Business Week about the iMac back in ’98: “For something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they (customers) want until you show it to them.”

So which is it? Should we run out and get as much feedback as possible? Or should we create in a vacuum? As with most matters of conventional wisdom, the answer is: Yes.

In theory, neither camp is wrong. The ability to place your ego aside and calmly listen to someone tell you why the color scheme of your design or the architecture of your app is wrong is not just admirable and imitable, but extremely logical. Quite often, it’s exactly these interactions that help preempt disasters. On the flip side, there is too much self-evident wisdom in the notion that, borrowing words from Michael Harris, “Our ideas wilt when exposed to scrutiny too early.” Indeed, some of the most significant breakthroughs in the world can be traced back to the stubbornness of an individual who saw her vision through in solitude, and usually in opposition to contemporary opinion.

In practice, however, we can trace most of our failures to a blind affiliation to one of the two camps. In the real world, the more-the-merrier camp typically leaves us stumbling through a self-inflicted field of feedback landmines until we step on one that takes with it our sense of direction and, often more dramatically, our faith in humanity. The camp of shunners, on the other hand, leads us to fortify our worst decisions with flimsy rationales that inevitably cave in on us like a wall of desolate Zunes.

Over the years I’ve learned that we’re exceptionally poor at determining whether the task at hand calls for truly seeking feedback about our vision, or simply calls for managing the, pardon my French, politics of feedback: ensuring that stakeholders feel involved and represented fairly in the process. Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, it is the latter, but we approach it as the former. And, quite expectedly, ninety-nine out of a hundred times the consequences are catastrophic.

At the root of this miscalculation is our repugnance at the idea of politics. Our perception of politics in the office—that thing our oh-so-despicable middle managers mask using words like “trade-off,” “diplomacy,” “partnership,” “process,” “metrics,” “review” and our favorite, “collaboration”—tracks pretty closely to our perception of governmental politics: it’s a charade that people with no real skills use to oppress us. What we conveniently forget is that politics probably leads to the inclusion of our own voice in the first place.

We deceive ourselves into believing that our voice is the most important one. That the world would be better served if the voices of those incompetent, non-technical stakeholders were muted or at the very least, ignored. And while this is a perfectly fine conclusion in some cases, it’s far from true for a majority of them. But this fact usually escapes most of us, and we frequently find ourselves clumsily waging a tense war on our clients and stakeholders: a war that is for the greater good, and thus, a necessary evil, we argue. And the irony of finding ourselves hastily forgoing a politically-savvy, diplomatic design process in favor of more aggressive (or worse, passive-aggressive) tactics is lost on us thanks to our proficiency with what Ariely dubs the fudge factor in his book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: “How can we secure the benefits of cheating and at the same time still view ourselves as honest, wonderful people? As long as we cheat by only a little bit, we can benefit from cheating and still view ourselves as marvelous human beings. This balancing act is the process of rationalization, and it is the basis of what we’ll call the fudge factor theory.”

Whether we like it or not, we’re all alike: we’re deeply political and our level of self-deception about our own political natures is really the only distinguishing factor between us.

And the worst part is that politics isn’t even a bad thing.

On the contrary, when you embrace it and do it right, politics is a win-win, with you delivering your best work, and your clients, stakeholders, and colleagues feeling a deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction as well. It’s hard to find examples of these situations, and even harder to drive oneself to search for them over the noise of the two camps, but there are plenty out there if you keep your eyes open. One of my favorites, particularly because the scenarios are in the form of video and have to do with design and development, comes in the form of the hit HGTV show Property Brothers. Starring 6'4" identical twins Drew (the “business guy” realtor) and Jonathan (the “designer/developer” builder), every episode is a goldmine for learning the right way to make clients, stakeholders, and colleagues (first-time home owners) a part of the feedback loop for a project (remodeling a fixer-upper) without compromising on your value system.

Now, on the off-chance you are actually looking for someone to validate your vision—say you’re building a new product for a market that doesn’t exist or is already saturated, or if someone specifically hired you to run with a radical new concept of your own genius (hey, it can happen)—it’ll be a little trickier. You will need feedback, and it’ll have to be from someone who is attuned to the kind of abstract thinking that would let them imagine and navigate the alternate universe that is so vivid in your mind. If you are able to find such a person, paint them the best picture you can with whatever tools are at your disposal, leave your ego at the door, and pay close attention to what they say.

But bear in mind that if they are unable see your alternate universe, it’s hardly evidence that it’s just a pipe dream with no place in the real world. After all, at first not just the most abstract thinkers, but even the rest of us couldn’t imagine an alternate universe with the internet. Or the iPhone. Or Twitter. The list is endless.

For now, I’m exhilarated that there’s at least one person who sees mine. And I’d be a fool to ignore her feedback.

2 Reader Comments

Load Comments