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How to Give Feedback to Ugly Babies

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How to Give Feedback to Ugly Babies

With 15 Academy Awards and an average worldwide gross of over $600 million per film, Pixar may be the most successful creative enterprise ever.

Despite such public success, in his memoir, Creativity, Inc., Pixar founder Ed Catmull writes, “Early on, all of our movies suck. The trick is to go beyond the initial germ of an idea and undergo the time-consuming and laborious work it takes to get something “from suck to not-suck.”

Catmull calls Pixar’s initial ideas “ugly babies,” because they start out, “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.” Not everyone can see what those ugly babies can grow into. It can be tempting to want to kill new ideas in the cradle, but it’s important to protect them.

That’s where a well-considered feedback system can work wonders.

80% OF EMPLOYEES UNHAPPY WITH THE FEEDBACK THEY RECEIVE

The National Business Research Institute recently surveyed employees and focused on their top 10 most recognised complaints. 8 out of 10 related to feedback from managers.

It’s not surprising that the prospect of feedback can whip us up into nervous wrecks and instill fear and angst into the most confident of us. We make an emotional investment in our work that we want to protect and nurture.

On a personal level, we’ve probably all been on the receiving end of ‘the shit sandwich approach’. Lulled into a false sense of security with a tasty starter before gritting our teeth as we’re hit with the unpleasant main course and the dessert disguised as delicious praise. When we receive feedback it’s natural to feel defensive. We’re taking on someone else’s opinion, often from a superior position, of how we’re performing or the quality of the work we’re producing.

Creative projects and ideas too can suffer the wrath of the critical feedback fiend, often delivered by the wrong person at the wrong time. Whether that’s the concept behind a new campaign, a new idea for the intranet or a piece in the employee magazine, at some point we need to give or receive positive, practical feedback.

With 80% of those employees surveyed by the NBRI feeling dissatisfied with the feedback they’re receiving, it seems there is work to be done!

Sharing feedback should be a positive process for all involved.

It can be productive for organisations that are striving to be innovative. When giving feedback on projects, campaigns or new ideas it’s about recognising the potential in someone or something, refining and supporting progress and improvement together.

FEEDBACK AT PIXAR

It’s often hard to identify a new idea’s potential when in the thick of things you’re faced with its shortcomings and problems. It’s crucial to remember that every great work was an ugly baby at some point and must be developed – effective feedback requires candor, trust and empathy. “Originality is fragile,” Catmull says, and new ideas need friends. The purpose of feedback is to move new projects and ideas forward, as this article by The Creativity Post points out.

The result at Pixar is the “braintrust,” a small group of the company’s top directors and producers charged with giving feedback to films in development. Importantly, everyone on the braintrust is a filmmaker and is capable of putting themselves in a director’s shoes. It’s the opinions of those who understand the project and can offer practical input that are valued and considered.

FEEDBACK IS A GIFT

Just as Pixar has it’s own process for giving feedback, any organisation can follow suit by developing methods and processes. They should focus on positive reinforcement, taking a project from its current state to a better place. If we can all become a little better at delivering and receiving feedback, it’s likely that more ugly babies will turn into beautiful beings!

Here are some of our thoughts about giving feedback on creative projects and ideas:

GIVING FEEDBACK

  • BE POSITIVE. Show respect for the person’s work, find a positive starting point to set the right tone for whatever follows.
  • BE CLEAR. Don’t leave people to figure out which part of the work your comments refer to. It’s not the job of others to read your mind and can make the feedback frustrating before they actually know what’s to come.
  • BE DESCRIPTIVE. Comments like, “I just don’t like it,” aren’t helpful and don’t offer the necessary guidance to make changes. Be specific.
  • BE SUPPORTIVE. Ensure your input makes a difference. Can you help with any of the points you’ve made or recommend resources or others who can help? How can you make it easier for your comments to be well received and actioned?
  • AGREE CRITERIA FOR JUDGMENT. Make sure that all parties are singing from the same hymn sheet. Set some guidelines and agree timescales or review dates to make the most of the process.
  • ASK WHAT THEY NEED FROM YOU. It’s likely that your feedback receiver has a specific agenda or some defined requirements that they need to make progress on. Make sure you address these by asking the question.
  • SHARE YOUR KNOWLEDGE. Offer insight and learnings from other experiences wherever possible.
  • BEWARE GIVING FEEDBACK ON EMAIL! (Particularly across languages.) Have you ever misconstrued an email? It’s easily done. If there’s no alternative then be super clear – otherwise, pick up the phone or better still, pay them a visit!

RECEIVING FEEDBACK

Before asking for feedback think about how you will position the work and what approach you will take to get the best result. Set the parameters around what you want to achieve. Consider getting stakeholders or project sponsors on board too for a broader insight and more support.

  • BE PROACTIVE AND ASK QUESTIONS. Allow yourself to be open to suggestions on how to improve.
  • TRUST THE JUDGMENT OF THOSE WHO KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T. You’re likely to be working with people who have diverse skills and talents.  As a result, you should trust their judgment on some things. If you don’t, you’re not giving your work the attention it deserves. Be open to following “the beat of a different drummer.”
  • KNOW THAT NOT ALL FEEDBACK IS DELIVERED WELL. At some point it’s inevitable that we’ll receive feedback in a ‘less than perfect’ way. When this happens, take it on the chin and try to unpick the meaning behind the comments without taking it too personally. Nobody’s perfect!
  • HAVE PATIENCE. When requesting feedback from someone, it’s important to give them time (if possible) to think and consider. Try not to push for input before they’ve had chance to digest your work and plan their comments.
  • SUMMARISE. Recap all the points made for confirmation. This will help to show that you’ve listened and that the input you’ve received is valued. It will also help clarify things if needed.
  • BEWARE receiving feedback on email! See above, the same applies.

HAVING AN IDEA IS NEVER AS IMPORTANT—NOR AS HARD—AS DEVELOPING IT

Giving feedback is a tough job, which should never be undervalued. As a creative agency, it’s part of daily life for us, and we need to approach it with the best possible mindset.

Pleasing all the people all the time isn’t an option. You may need to interpret the feedback to work alongside input from other sources and to make it fit with the direction of your project.

Stick with it. Feedback certainly is a gift and we wouldn’t make progress without it. Driving projects forward and nurturing those ‘ugly babies’ (and the pretty ones too) is a truly joint effort.

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