Winning ways to give feedback to creatives

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As is typical in a small company, most of us play multiple roles on any given day—some are pure duty; others are pure joy. Hands down, my favorite is preliminary acceptability testing of various work products. It’s exciting, at times intoxicating, to be the test pilot of something that has been long-planned, labored on over many days, and has finally landed—paint still a bit tacky—ready for a test drive. Over the years, I have found the content and quality of my feedback can have outsized impact on the fit and finish of the final product and, far more importantly, the well-being of the creative team and the direction of our corporate culture. If you provide feedback to creative teams, your actions in this role have more impact than you may realize. As managers, it’s worth reviewing the quality of our work in this area periodically. This article aims to help you do that.

First, our feedback to creative teams occurs in a context. It begins not with the words we choose but the environment in which those words are delivered. In other words, it starts with culture. The potential impact of the winning ways described below is directly proportional to the cultural context in which they are delivered. So, let’s take a look a culture first.

How to build a creative-friendly culture:

Your organization's culture will be a major factor in how feedback is given and received. On the other hand, the way work review is done is a powerful culture-changer/sustainer. At ODT, we work hard at developing a culture conducive to creative work. It sounds hard, but the principle is simple really—establishing the right context for winning product reviews is largely a matter of recognizing the part you, as a manager, play in the journey from nothing to something. Here are some pillars of understanding at ODT:

1. The managers serve the makers. Our organization’s products are what drive our value proposition. As such, those making the products are respected, even revered. Management is important, but it’s important because it serves to create conditions where makers can thrive. Practically, here’s how the rubber meets the road on this: Routine administrative forms are sent pre-filled and organized to minimize effort required to finalize them. Policy changes are carefully weighed and communicated efficiently and infrequently. The business-operations staff considers it their mission to reduce the impact of necessary administrative duties on the creative staff. IT security is important, and as such, much time is spent smoothing the impact they have on the creative staff. We fail at this sometimes, and when we do, we consider those failures as seriously as we would any other operations failure.

2. We turn defects into dividends. Our error culture is geared toward value extraction, not toxic political point-winning. This attitude extends end-to-end through administrative, operations, and product development activities.

3. We use empathetic candor when providing feedback.

4. We assume everyone wants to improve their craft. Managers and makers alike. Suggestions about how to do this are given without cohesion and received thoughtfully.

5. We talk shop. We have have regular open-ended discussions with the creative team outside the review process. We provide time and space to talk about where they think the fertile soil is and what worries them. As a manager, you should always seek to improve your mental map of the project’s interior and where the edges between easy and hard lie. You can’t empathize credibly without this map. Further, this map will inform your feedback and keep you honest in your promises outside the team.

6. We don’t make blind promises. Avoid framing work with “this should be easy” when what you really mean is that you’ve been running your mouth at the last management meeting making promises you hope will be easy.  Instead present new unplanned work as: “we have an opportunity to meet a present need, I’m not sure it’s possible, but how close can we get to X in the next week or so?” Set expectations low and let your team exceed them. It’s the right of all makers to exceed expectations—don’t steal it from them with your own clumsy expectation setting. If, in the end, it can’t be done, take the hit and admit your blunder at the next management meeting. The fault was yours, not theirs. As I write this, the creative team at SpaceX is basking in the glow of exceeded expectations with the well-documented first launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Their leader, Elon Musk, wisely gave them the space to exceed on numerous occasions prior to launch with public messages like:

I hope it makes it far enough away from the [launch] pad so that it does not cause pad damage, I would consider even that a win to be honest.
— Elon Musk

Do this regularly, and your creative team will quietly move mountains for you.

7. Remember, managers and makers see time differently. Recognize that there is a maker-manager dichotomy, and the worlds are not the same. Product review is one place the worlds touch.

8. Remember, you are on sacred ground. Recognize that it is a privilege to see things as they emerge from the creative process. This is the sacred ground where passions become products. The creative team has more riding on this than you do. They gave their hearts to this work. Make sure your review notes reflect the value of that.

Ok, that’s the context. Let’s look at the winning ways.

The winning ways:

So, imagine: you’ve just test-driven your creative team’s work product. It’s taken weeks to get to this point, and you are about to give feedback on your experience with the fruits of this labor. In that context, consider these ways:

Say thank you.

Every work product is imperfect and your notes will no doubt include guidance on how to address the imperfections; but review notes can be so much more than a dry list of change requests. Review notes are an outstanding opportunity to encourage and champion the big picture that’s so easy to lose sight of in the creative mess. Be sure to include acknowledgement of the parts of this work that are responsive to your organization’s direction and stated goals. This is especially important for the less flashy grunt work such as paying down technical debt, adopting new standards, and generally doing things differently—the sorts of tasks that, if done just right, no one will notice. These efforts often have high cost/benefit ratios from the maker’s perspective and your encouragement will go a long way to assuaging what creatives fear most of all: effort without delivered value. 

Respect the sweat.

Making new things is hard labor. Respect that by allocating ample time to your review process. Your team knows the difference between a cursory glance and a whole-hearted review. If you lack the requisite time to do a respectful review, say so. Give what direction you can to allow the team to maintain momentum and return when you have time and space to give the work its due.

Turn it around.

Quickly. Remember the time dilatation you experienced as a child waiting for summer vacation, or your birthday, or your friend to be available to play? Or as a student, waiting for those test scores, or that essay grade? Hours felt like days, days like weeks. The same thing happens when your creative team drops their work for review. A few days seems like weeks, and a week like an eternity. Today’s feedback is twice as potent as tomorrow’s. Clear your schedule and dive in. You’ll encourage your team and allow them to maintain precious momentum. I’ve seen projects take twice as long and deliver half the value due to the simple lack of timely review.  If you want the most out of your creative team give them near-immediate, high-quality feedback.

Don't block.

If you can’t turn it around, get out of the way. It doesn’t get easier to create something while waiting for feedback. If you are blocking on a mid-process review, get out of the way or move the deadline. Don’t put your staff in a position where they must sacrifice quality to hit a deadline because you burned time lingering over reviews. Send the message that the work they do is real and the time it takes to perform is not arbitrarily compressible.

Be flexible.

Be open to different paths to the same result. Be open to different results that accomplish the same overall goals. When faced with something unexpected, the typical reaction is to send it back with a reiteration of the specification, but before you do that, step back and consider the alternative they have proposed. Does it accomplish the same goal? Does their solution deliver higher or the same benefit at less cost? Are there positive upsides here the original direction missed? Although they may not be in the same meetings, your creative team may be more in tune with the overall goals and future direction of the project than you think. Don’t throw their creative solutions to the side without first examining them carefully for inherent value.

Promote action with clarity.

Make your feedback actionable. As you complete a review, read your notes and ask: are the issues and directions clear? Have I offered acceptable solutions without dictating in places where my ignorance disqualifies me from such direction? Have I prioritized the nice-to-haves, or indicated where there is no priority? Have I used empathy with candor?

Be part of the solution.

If you have an issue, provide clear steps to reproduce it, collect log files, links, screenshots, etc. Explain the environment (operating system, build, browser, etc.) and make it easy to find. Don’t send your makers on a scavenger hunt—their time is better spent fixing the problem. If nothing is broken but you want something different, provide your own rough mock-ups. Put some sweat in. As you wrestle with the design constraints, you might soon learn why things are as they are and have to re-think at a deeper level to provide actionable guidance.

Respect the roles.

If you think the how is wrong (that is, the methods used to create the product), be ready to support that. In spades. Sure, you wrote a natural language parser, in Scheme, back in the day. Nobody cares. There are myriad factors that go into tool and process choice. You are probably aware of half of them. That said, you should understand as much as you can about the why and what of your maker’s process. (See “talk shop” above.) There is a time to question the tools used, but product review is not it.

Remember: it's not about you.

Drive constructive criticism from the user’s perspective. Rather than “I don’t like this,” try “I think the users will be confused here and this is why.” Then compare the current product’s pros and cons against the model user’s profile and explain what works and what’s going to lead to trouble. More often than not, your review of the user proto-personas will remind you that, you, in fact, are not the target consumer. This will help you introspect your review notes.

Raise the bar.

Making is hard, sweaty work. It’s easy to get discouraged and lose sight of the vision during the battle. But it’s very motivating to have a real human noticing the gaps and requesting the polish. Gently remind your makers of places where excellence is yet to be attained—if done right, they will feel better about their final product and thank you for it. Creatives need to be reminded, regularly, that someone cares about the little details. It is better if it’s not just you, but it should at least be you.

Don't creep.

If you uncover other issues during review, create new tickets/stories for them and link to them in your review. Let the maker decide if the cost/benefit is such that they can be done now. A short iteration with additional smaller ‘clean up’ stories is usually better than a long drawn out review process in which the specification shifts. Also, breaking the new issues out into separate stories will place them in the backlog alongside other pending stories for proper prioritization.

Hone the process (elsewhere).

You’ll probably notice opportunities for tradecraft improvements while doing reviews. Keep separate notes for these and deliver them separate from review of the creative product. Process is important and winning teams are always honing their tradecraft. But process is different than product. On a regular basis, exhort for process improvement (separate from the work at hand). Message that you are willing to make continual drip-investments in things that sharpen the process, people, and tools. But remember, product review is not the same thing as process review. The goals and audience are different. Plan for, but don’t do process review in your product review. If you accumulate and hone process guidance through multiple product review cycles, that guidance will be more relevant and actionable.


Be a maker.

Of something. You can’t truly appreciate the chasm that exists between 0 and 1, nothing and something, no feature and feature, idea and implementation unless you are regularly creating things yourself. Your empathetic candor will only be as good as your ability to actually empathize with your creative staff and to do that, you need to have created things yourself. So plant a garden, tie flies, build a drone, take a watercolor class, throw some clay. Be a maker. You’ll be a better manager for it.

To give, receive.

Full disclosure: These ways are not my own creation. I’ve gathered them from leadership I’ve had when I was a full-time maker. I’ve also learned them from watching other creative managers in the field. Finally, our own creative teams and team leads have patiently taught me these ways. All of which illustrates one final point—to get good at giving feedback, you’ve got to be good at receiving it. Be teachable. Watch, listen, and learn. Maker or manager, growth comes to those who are brave enough to try new, uncomfortable things, battle pride when they work and humbly adjust course when they don’t.


Photo by SpaceX