Feedback: Giving, Receiving, Frameworks and a lesson from Bill Gates

Ask for a slap in the face.

If you show somebody a piece of your work and you ask them ‘What do you think?’, they will probably say it’s okay because they don’t want to offend you. Next time, instead of asking if it’s right, ask them what’s wrong. They may not say what you want to hear, but the chances are they will give you a truthful criticism. Truth hurts, but in the long run It is better than a pat on the back.

The one thing that I keep trying to improve on is giving and receiving feedback. It is frustrating to have 14 iterations of a design file because the designer has not fully understood the feedback. On the other hand, when I receive feedback from an hour-long deck review that results in 10 revisions to the deck makes it apparent, there’s a problem in the process.

Taking Feedback

  • Don’t get confrontational. Ask questions to clarify and understand the feedback better but don’t get defensive. If you do that, people will stop giving you honest feedback which is the best tool you have to improve performance
  • ALL feedback is good feedback because if you agree with it, it tells you something about yourself which you can work on correcting. If you do not agree with it, it tells you that there is an incorrect perception about you in the other persons mind which is again something you can work on correcting.
  • Ask for feedback regularly. You don’t have to wait for your year end appraisal to get feedback. Schedule time with your boss and actively seek feedback from him/her at least once every quarter.

Giving Feedback

  • Use a structure: Don’t go on and on with your point of view. Keeping it concise, while being as clear as possible. A good structure I use when giving feedback is to cover three things.
    • Positives and what should be kept {always start with positives}
    • Things that should be repeated
    • Things should/could be improved
  • Tone: Words are very powerful, therefore choose wisely before giving your feedback. Along with words the way those words are conveyed should be direct and to the point but should avoid sarcasm, being condescending or making snarky related to your feedback.
  • Keeping it constructive and not getting confrontational. Remember that the objective in giving feedback is to tell the other person something which they can use to improve, its not to point out their faults. That’s a subtle but important difference.

Feedback Frameworks

Socrates Feedback Method

I found an interesting method by the famous philosopher Socrates, he used probing questions to educate his students, having them reach conclusion by asking them questions ranging from rationale, clarification, probing questions.

Sometimes when direct feedback is not an option or will not be helpful, leveraging this method is the best strategy to get feedback in a collaborative way. It’s also quite useful in giving ‘non-specific’ feedback i.e things that are non quantifiable

Check out the full list of Socrates questions here

Bug Method

This framework is one that I use often and it’s a popular bug reporting method on Github, but it also works quite well for giving design/strategy feedback. The feedback in this case is actionable and it’s also quite similar to the Jira form when creating bug tickets.

  • Title: The title should be clear and descriptive. It should be suggestive enough that the reader can understand it. This helps the devs but also helps others in finding out if someone else has given similar feedback.
  • Text: The text body of your feedback post should include the following elements:
    • Description: Start with a description of the thing you have encountered. Try to do this as clearly as possible using complete sentences. Focus on the impact on you as a user (or possibly the community). So instead of saying “this looks like shit” explain things like “Using these and these elements make this thing here hard to read”.
    • Screenshot(s): A picture is worth a thousand words. Try to include a screenshot where possible, bonus points if you highlight the problem areas.
    • Possible suggestions: If possible give suggestions

The Result Optimisation Model

There are many project management models and methods. Most of them are based on the premise that there is a fixed amount of time in which to carry out a project. Generally, within this time, ideas are gathered (G) and consolidated (C), and a concept is selected and implemented (I). In real life we all know that we never have enough time. And the little time we do have is reduced by unforeseen events like a printer breaking down the minute you want to use it.

The result optimisation model divides the available time into three sequences (loops) of equal length, thereby forcing the project manager to complete the project three times. The idea is to improve the outcome in each successive working loop.

This method leads not only to improved output quality but also to a more successful final outcome: at the end of a project, instead of simply being glad that it is ‘finally put to bed’, the whole team has a threefold feeling of achievement.

Beware! Be stringent when carrying out this strategy: work in such a way that each loop is properly completed before embarking on the next. Otherwise this model loses its dynamic.

With development processes, it is important to clearly separate the three stages, of gathering, consolidation and implementation.

World’s best leaders giving feedback [Bill Gates]

Ever wondered what the receiving end of an email from the world’s richest man looks like? Bill Gates was known as a workaholic and perfectionist. Microsoft was at the helm of Gates until 2000 after which he handed over the position of CEO to Steve Ballmer, and took on the position of Chief Software Architect (think tech advisor)

Fast forward to 2003, Microsoft releases Movie Maker. Bill Gates tries to download the software and use it, but finds it more challenging than expected. Here are some great moments from his feedback email. [ Read the full memo here]

He is extremely blunt. He has three pages worth of feedback describing the process of trying to download the software.

Bill Gates describing how slow the Microsoft site is.

The first 5 times I used the site it timed out while trying to bring up the download page. Then after an 8 second delay I got it to come up This site is so slow it is unusable

Bill Gates describing trying to run the download

So I did the download. That part was fast. Then it wanted to do an install. This took 6 minutes and the machine was so slow I couldn’t use it for anything else during this time. What the hock is going on during those 6 minutes? That is crazy. This is after the download was finished. Then it told me to reboot my machine.

Why should I do that? I reboot every night – why should I reboot at that time? So I did the reboot because it INSISTED on it. Of course that meant completely getting rid of all my Outlook state.

Bill Gates describing his overall experience

So after more than an hour of craziness and making my program, spits garbage and being scared and seeing that Microsoft com is a terrible website I haven’t run Moviemaker and I haven’t got the plus package

The lack of attention to usability represented by these experiences blows my mind. I thought we had reached a low with Windows Network places or the messages I get when I try to use 802.11. (don’t you just love that root certificate message?)

When I really get to use the stuff I am sure I will have more feedback.

Final Thoughts

A beautiful thing is never perfect. Anonymous

I love this quote because it’s the best way to describe feedback. It’s needed to improve, from a personal and professional level. One of the hardest things to do is proper introspection, it’s much easier to ask a manager, mentor or friend to give feedback versus thinking how you can improve yourself (this is also bias) so yes, sometimes a slap on the face is what you need.

For now this is my first 1000+ words on feedback.