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How to Structure Feedback

Sep 15, 2019

I've come across two wonderful feedback formats for helping your colleagues deal with difficult situations. First one is from David Emerald; I read about it when doing research for my post The Drama Triangle. Second one is from Buckingham and Goodall's article "The Feedback Fallacy" which I wrote about last week.

Both of these formats are meant for situations where your colleague is trying to fix issues such as their alarming career trajectory (not enough responsibility, uninspiring work, too little salary, etc.), a struggling project, or dysfunctional team dynamics. If you need to discuss areas of improvement with your colleague, consider reading "Blunt Feedback".

Both of these formats are also about asking the right questions – not about giving the right answers. In addition to making sure that the majority of your feedback is positive (research shows that we actually learn more when we get positive feedback and not when our grammar gets corrected by our colleagues), you should remember to avoid handing out quick fixes to your colleagues. Helping our colleagues think productively about their problems – not solving the problems for them – is our gift to them.

I'll introduce both of the formats briefly and then share my own notes about them. Feel free to make your own conclusions about Emerald, Buckingham, and Goodall's work.

Emerald asks the following three questions from his colleagues when they come to him for advice:

  1. "What do you want?" When dealing with tension and stress, we often focus on the things we don't want or like. Put the focus back on outcomes with this question.
  2. "What are your current realities?" We don't have to pretend that limitations don't exist.
  3. "What are the steps you can take?"

And here's Buckingham and Goodall version:

  1. What's working for you right now? Focusing on positive things opens us up for more creative and open-minded thinking. Think of this question as warm-up for your colleague's brain.
  2. What has previously worked for you when solving similar problems?
  3. What do you already know works in this situation? Assume your colleague knows the answer to their problem once they have reflected on their strengths and past experiences.

Both of these formats share a similar flow: First, we should help our colleague direct their thinking away from the negative. We want our colleagues to focus on visions and personal strengths – not problems and everything that's wrong with their current situation.

Second, we offer a way to structure our colleague's thinking. Emerald frames the problem as a puzzle by establishing concrete limits. Buckingham and Goodall frame the problem as a pattern recognition challenge by trying to find similarities with past problems.

Third, we trust our colleague to know what to do. We can share some of our own experience and knowledge with them but the focus should remain on our colleague and their reflection.

Hope you get a chance to practice these questions. You can even try the formats on yourself the next time you're hoping for some good advice.

Feedback Fallacy

Sep 7, 2019

Inspired by Justin Rosenstein, I wrote about blunt feedback six months ago. I still stand behind that post and I do consider it a worthwhile read. However, there's stuff in that post that I should revisit.

In the aforementioned post I wrote "I can elevate my co-workers by sharing feedback with them." This feedback can be blunt or negative if it has to. It can be something that elicits a defensive response from a colleague.

A month later Harvard Business Review published Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall's article "The Feedback Fallacy". The piece made me consider if everything I thought about feedback was wrong. Does my feedback actually elevate my colleagues or does it bring them down instead?

Here's Buckingham and Goodall's argument in a nutshell: Blunt feedback is bad. It smothers learning. Also, organizations are way too obsessed with this kind of unhealthy, unproductive feedback.

Why is blunt feedback bad feedback? Here are the three systematic errors we make when we tell our colleagues that their communication isn't assertive enough or that they lack strategic thinking.

First, we think we are a source of truth. Too often we treat feedback as objective statements especially if we collect it from multiple reviewers. In reality, our perception of good versus bad is highly subjective and we all have our false assumptions and unconscious biases. The feedback we give tells more about us than the work we try to review.

Second, negative feedback triggers our lizard brains. Hearing negative feedback makes us raise our guard while positive feedback opens us up for learning and the possibility of change. You should try to keep your colleagues out of the "fight or flight" mode – not push them towards it.

Third, you can't codify excellence unless you're trying to replace machines with humans. When you pursue excellence in creative fields, you are navigating uncharted territory. You can't model creative excellence, and because of that you're never really sure if your colleague is "on the right track" whether you like her work or not.

Buckingham and Goodall aren't proposing us to steer away from instructions and responses to mess-ups. System failures should be investigated. Teams help new members navigate unfamiliar programming languages and frameworks. But these kinds of feedback situations are more about putting out fires and getting up to speed rather than professional and personal growth.

Want to help your colleagues learn? Here are two tips from Buckingham and Goodall:

  1. Acknowledge that your feedback is subjective: instead of telling your teammate not to do something, use a pattern such as "when you do X, I feel Y."
  2. Point out moments of greatness: Direct the focus of your feedback away from mistakes. Look for positive outcomes and help your colleagues notice them also.

If the majority of the feedback you give your colleagues are reactions to mistakes, you're not helping your colleagues grow. Often your colleagues don't even need you to tell them that they messed up (they probably know it themselves already). Instead, look into your colleagues work and tell them what's so great about it.

Shipping Muscle

Sep 1, 2019

We use a muscle when sharing our work with the world. This muscle is called the shipping muscle – and like any other muscle in our body, we can train it to make it stronger.

The shipping muscle analogy directs us to perceive shipping as a skill obtained through purposeful training. This idea is originally shared by Rob Walling. I'm not a big fan of analogies as mental models but I do find Walling's idea extremely helpful when dealing with the fear that comes with sharing my own work.

If your fear is preventing you from shipping, you have a weak shipping muscle. If you ship despite the fear, your shipping muscle is strong.

We don't train our shipping muscle in the gym. But if we want to make our shipping muscle stronger, we do have to follow some basic fundamentals of strength training. The first fundamental is progression. The second one is continuity.

If your goal is to bench press 200lbs, should you try to lift 200lbs on your first day at the gym? No (unless you want to get crushed by the weights or break your body in some other way). Instead, we work our way to our goal. We start with the weights that we are able to lift. Next day we'll add some more weights and repeat the process until we reach our goal (this is progression).

Wait... Did I just write "until we reach our goal?" Scratch that.

We are never done with our training. When we quit the gym, our muscles not only stop growing but also start to deteriorate. There is no finishing line. We still show up at the gym after we have reached our goals. We don't expect the sweat and discomfort to stop (even though we sometimes hope for it). Fear of shipping isn't going to go away either. You just have to learn to live with it (this is continuity).

What is the "advice" you or your friends give you when you're struggling to ship? Is it something along the lines of "just ship it" or "there is nothing to be afraid of"?. It's all reasonable advice. However, not always very helpful.

Shipping muscle is a muscle like any other. Therefore, consider the following if you want to become a stronger artist (real artists ship):

  1. Work your way up to more meaningful projects
  2. This exercise work should be regular and never-ending
  3. Learn to live with the fear

Stateful Designs

Aug 25, 2019

This cheatsheet is written to help you add stateful thinking to your component designs. Why do you need this cheatsheet? Because when we discuss features and designs we usually focus on the "happy path" – the default state of our app. Things like errors, blank screens, and loading graphics are easily overlooked.

Consider the following states or lifecycles when drawing up designs for a page or component. Not all are applicable for every situation. Inversely, you might have to introduce additional states.

Data

When working with a list, you have to accommodate both the users with zero items and users with lots of items.

  • Loading: This is relevant if you load the data (e.g. from a 3rd party API) after you render the component. Loading doesn't happen instantaneously.
  • None: There is no data, no items, and no input.
  • One: User has their first item of data.
  • Some: The ideal state of your component. There is data but not too many and not too few.
  • Too many: Data starts to overflow. There are too many items or too many characters.

Availability

  • Disabled: You are preventing users from interacting with the component.
  • Enabled: Things are running smoothly.
  • Error: Something has gone wrong.

Input

Buttons react to clicks. Form fields might have validation logic.

  • Invalid: Something is wrong with the input.
  • Valid: Input is valid and ready for submission.
  • Done: App has approved the user's input.

Read more

Vince Speelman gives beautiful examples of stateful thinking in his article "The Nine States of Design".

The Drama Triangle

Aug 18, 2019

Karpman drama triangle is a model of human interaction from the 1960s. It's based on two core assumptions: First, we have a tendency to choose certain recurrent roles in moments of conflict. Second, these roles are nonhelpful and often destructive.

Every drama triangle starts with a victim or a persecutor. Victims are oppressed by their persecutors. They are at the effect of others and/or their circumstances. Persecutors are the villains. They are authoritative and controlling. They blame others for screwing things up.

The third actor in a drama triangle is the rescuer who comes to the victim's aid in order to make themselves look good or to avoid dealing with their own problems. The rescuer validates the victim's feelings of persecution and provides momentary relief.

You can probably see examples of the drama triangle in your everyday life. There are victims, persecutors, and rescuers in your family, in the stories your friends share with you, and at your workplace. On certain occasions, you yourself have taken the role of a victim, a rescuer, or perhaps even a persecutor.

Since anxiety and tension are part of our lives, so is drama and conflict. However, as individuals we have a choice to stop and think as opposed to react and automatically fall into our destructive roles:

  • As a victim, ask yourself what do you want instead of what you don't want. Focus on outcomes instead of problems.
  • As a persecutor, ask yourself what are your true intentions when challenging someone. Do you want to support the learning and growth of others or do you want to point out your brilliance?
  • As a rescuer, choose the role of a coach over the role of a hero. As a coach, you assume that other people are capable of solving their own problems. Coaches ask questions that help people understand what they want, what are the current realities, and how can they take steps toward their goals.

David Emerald teaches people how to turn the drama triangle upside down and opt into more constructive roles. You can find his book The Power of TED here.

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