Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Negative feedback valuable? Let us count the ways

John Butman's latest post on the HBR Blog Network, "The Benefits of Negative Feedback" is thoughtful and provocative. Butman writes:

I recently gave a lunchtime “author’s talk” at Children’s Hospital in Boston and, although I thought the talk went well, somebody in the audience didn’t like it at all. On the evaluation form, the person in question wrote a single word in the comment box: CONFUSING.

Thank you, whoever you are. While everybody else gave me good marks and said nice things, which I appreciated, my critic forced me into self-examination....

An idea that advocates any kind of change is likely to receive some amount of negative response. When you’ve invested time, energy, and passion into your idea, this rejection can hurt. Your first impulse may be to lash back, to rebut the rebuttal. But a better response is to let the backlash unfold a bit: It is likely that negative feedback will be the most useful in further developing your idea.

Butman's assertions support some of the arguments I make in chapter 2 of the book. Let me share a few thoughts about feedback.

1. It's a very inexpensive way to learn. If something isn't going right, patterns in feedback will show patterns you can use to fix things before they get more serious. If Butman's talk was confusing to the audience, better to figure that out right away and fix it, rather than ignore the issue and find out by no longer getting speaking invitations.

2. It's difficult to be open to negative feedback. Because it's painful, we often tune it out or even discourage people from providing it. This can be costly - see item #1 above. Instead you should welcome feedback. My favorite example of inviting negative feedback came from advertising executive MP Mueller, who took an unhappy customer to lunch and stated, "Lay it on me."

3. Patterns are key. A single piece of negative feedback could be an anomaly. But a pattern of feedback, pointing to the same issue, is highly relevant and actionable. (Fred Wilson discussed this on his post on employee exit interviews.)

4. Some folks just won't be into what you're doing... and that's OK. Comedian David Steinberg, on NPR's Fresh Air program, recalled that Lenny Bruce felt he was successful if even 1/3 of the audience was appreciating his act. Whatever you're doing, especially if you have a provocative point of view, won't appeal to everyone. Be comfortable with that.

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