The power of critique

How to improve feedback on your team

Braden Kowitz,Yellow Squiggle
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Photo by Antenna via Unsplash

Giving each other helpful feedback is one of the most important parts of being a team. But many teams struggle to give each other feedback in productive ways. Thankfully, the design community has been absolutely obsessed with how to give each other feedback since the start of time.

You can use hard-won lessons from designers to improve how your team gives and receives feedback.

Designers love feedback because they often need to find solutions in situations where there is little data. What font should we use? Should that blue be a little darker? How should we communicate this concept to customers? There are often no hard metrics available to back up design decisions. So in the absence of data, designers turn to critique as a method to improve their work based on the collective wisdom of a group.

If you want a deeper look into how to build a culture of productive feedback, I highly recommend Creativity Inc... In the book, Ed Catmull outlines the process that Pixar uses to critique their films. The team at Pixar must make thousands of critical decisions that shape each film. And there’s no way to measure if those decisions are right, except when the film is finally released. Their only way to check progress along the way is through critique.

You’re probably not working on a feature film. But if you have to make important decisions that are hard to measure, you should build critique into your team’s culture.

There is no script

There are many articles on the web about how to run a design critique, and they’ll all give you a glimpse into the world of what the design community has figured out. But they’re often little more than a script to follow.

I’ve seen so many teams follow guidelines, attempt to run a critique, and then have the whole session fall apart. And I’ve seen other teams break all the rules and have incredible feedback sessions. What gives!

Running a great critique is more than a simple process. It’s a deep cultural attitude and a set of skills that your team needs to build over time.

That may sound hard, but once you understand the foundations that lead to a great critique, you can nurture those capabilities in your teams. You can use the foundations as a map to troubleshoot a wide variety of situations that involve people giving feedback to each other.

Critique Fundamental #1:

Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is the core of what it means to be a team. There are many things groups can do together that don’t involve feeling safe, but being a team is not one of them. If you don’t feel safe, you can’t be vulnerable and share where you’re struggling. And if you can’t ask for help from one another, you’re not a team.

Core question: Can this team be vulnerable with each other?

Critique issues related to psychological safety:

  • Reluctance to share work in critique
  • Waiting until work is “done” before bringing it to review

You might think that to improve psychological safety you should focus on trust. But that’s not quite right. As it turns out, vulnerability leads to trust, not the other way around. So to get your team to give each other better feedback, you need to first find ways to help them show vulnerability around each other.

Ways to build psychological safety:

Critique Fundamental #2:

Growth Mindset

High-functioning teams approach critique with the belief that their work can be better, and that they can grow their abilities over time. However, some people lose track of the growth mindset. For them, critique of work can feel like a deep personal challenge of their character.

Core question: Is a fixed mindset getting in the way of hearing feedback?

When people hold a fixed mindset, they see their own abilities as fixed, and never changing. In this mindset, your work is a reflection of not just your skills, but a reflection of your character. So if you criticize the work of someone with a fixed mindset, they can receive that feedback as a deeply personal attack on their own self worth. If that happens, productive critique has no chance.

Critique issues related to growth mindset:

  • Becoming defensive when work is under critique.
  • Avoiding taking action based on feedback received.
  • Showing work, but never asking for feedback from the group.

Thankfully, there are interventions that have been shown to help people switch their mindset and approach challenges with more resilience.

Ways to build a growth mindset:

  • Read the excellent book, Mindset, by Carol Dweck.
  • Share experiences of growth and learning on the team.
  • Be mindful of your language. For example, prefer "challenge” to “problem” and prefer “lessons” to “mistakes”.
  • Praise the work, not the person. For example, don’t say “Dana is a great writer.” Instead, say “Dana worked hard on this piece of writing and it came out great.”

Critique Fundamental #3:

Radical Candor

Kim Scott has one of the best frameworks for understanding how to give feedback in a productive way. She focuses on two axes that must be present for feedback to work: caring deeply and challenging directly.

Critique issues related to radical candor:

  • Critiques are overly harsh or even toxic. (Obnoxious aggression)
  • People are hesitant to share feedback. (Artificial harmony)

The principle of caring deeply is very close to psychological safety. In order to care deeply, you must help people feel like they belong on the team. You have to say, “I believe in you. I know you can succeed here.” And you must constantly renew these belonging cues so that people feel safe. That lays the groundwork for people to be able to hear the feedback they receive.

If you are offering critique without caring about the person, you’re not going to get anywhere.

Honestly, it’s rare that I see toxic teams that really don’t care about each other. Instead, it’s much more common to find teams that care so deeply about each other that they become hesitant to share any feedback! They worry that by challenging each other it might disrupt the harmony of the group.

But keeping all your feedback and thoughts locked inside isn’t going to help anyone. All those little nagging issues will seep out somewhere. Instead of bringing up feedback to a colleague directly, you might end up talking about their work behind their back. And that leads to even more problems. In order to have a productive critique, the team needs to understand that challenging directly is the most respectful way to share feedback with each other.

Core question: Are we caring deeply? Are we challenging directly?

Ways to build radical candor:

  • Together with your team, read and discuss Radical Candor by Kim Scott.
  • If you are feeling like your team is overly critical, return focus to psychological safety, and work on making recognition and praise more common.
  • Find ways to give your team permission to challenge directly. For example, have someone with high-status specifically ask for candid feedback and model the behavior.

Critique Fundamental #4:

Clarity of Purpose

Now it’s time to get more into the mechanics of what it means to run a feedback session or critique. One big reason critiques go poorly is because the team is not aligned on either the purpose of the conversation or the purpose of the project.

Critique issues related to clarity of purpose:

  • Presenters are selling their work instead of looking for ways to improve their work.
  • Feedback frequently goes off-track, into unimportant or unrelated issues.
  • Feedback is often conflicting, with no easy resolution.
  • Problem solving happens in the moment, rather than deferring to the presenter to solve an identified issue.

I find that feedback sessions tend to lie on a spectrum of purpose. One one end of the spectrum is the pure critique. The purpose of a critique is to use the knowledge in the room to help someone improve their work. On the other side of the spectrum is the pure approval. The purpose of an approval meeting is to pitch a great idea, not to improve the work.

Core question: Why are we having this conversation? Is it for approval or critique?

This is such an important distinction because when we’re pitching or selling an idea, we’re not that open to hearing feedback. And when people are acting as approvers, it can set up an adversarial relationship that prevents great feedback from happening.

There are plenty of great reasons to hold approval meetings. But your team shouldn’t expect to get great feedback (and be able to hear it) in the setting of an approval meeting. So you should try as much as possible to separate your meetings into either approvals or critiques.

Core question: Why are we working on this project? What are we hoping to achieve?

The other common misalignment tends to be when people have different ideas of why the project is happening in the first place. I’m sure you’ve experienced this before, because I’ve seen it in all contexts. An engineer might ask for a code review, and the reviewer goes off on a tangent. Or a designer might show a screen, and then get a bunch of feedback that’s off topic.

Ways to build clarity of purpose:

  • Start every meeting by stating the purpose of the conversation.
  • Separate out “critique” from “approval” meetings as much as possible.
  • Ask teammates to reiterate the purpose of their project and related context at the start of any request for feedback.
  • Begin feedback sessions with a short “questions only” period where teammates can only ask clarifying questions to better understand the work under critique.

Critique Fundamental #5:

Building Rituals

Rituals are a core part of what it means to be human. From when we brush our teeth in the morning to how we commute to work, rituals put a whole host of activities on automatic. Once you’ve built a strong habit for a behavior, it’s sort of magical how easily it happens without even thinking about it.

Critique issues related to building rituals:

  • High variability: some critiques run well, while others feel broken.
  • Outsiders visiting a critique throw the discussion off-course.

In the context of work, we build processes, which are just repeated actions. And once those actions repeat over and over again, they become habits. The collection of habits and assumptions that a group of people has built… well, that’s just another way of describing the group’s culture. So if you need to shape the culture of how feedback happens on your team, process can be a powerful tool.

Core question: What behaviors do we want on automatic? What behaviors shouldn’t be automatic? Do our rituals support these goals?

If you have project managers or design producers at your company, they will make amazing allies for setting up the rituals that encourage helpful critique.

Ways to build rituals of critique:

  • Ban outsiders. Keep the set of people reviewing work consistent until you build a strong culture of helpful critique with at least a small group.
  • Clarify roles in a critique: presenter, facilitator, note taker, feedback-giver, etc.
  • Develop guide rails for the presenter. For example, a template that helps them prepare for the critique with questions.
  • What decisions do I need to make next?
  • Where would feedback be most helpful?
  • What does the audience need to know in order to provide helpful feedback?
  • Develop guide rails for reviewers who are providing feedback.
  • Start each critique meeting by restating the purpose of the conversation.
  • Institute a rule like round robin feedback to shape the group dynamic. Once a rule becomes habitual, remove or change it to shape the dynamic further.
  • Build continual improvement into your critique process by reflecting on each session and what could have gone better.

There’s plenty more advice out there for rules and rituals for running productive feedback sessions. A Google search for “design critique guide” will serve you well.

Use these 5 fundamentals to debug your feedback challenges

Now that you have these 5 points in mind, you can use them as map to fix many problems you might be having with feedback on your team. Here’s how to do that:

  1. List out all the challenges your team has with giving each other feedback.
  2. For every challenge, consider which of the 5 fundamentals are underlying the problem.
  3. Take steps to strengthen your fundamentals. If you get stuck, try reading some of the books suggested above.

I hope this article has been helpful to you! I’d love to hear your experiences putting these ideas into action. You can find me on Twitter: @kowitz

And if you’re serious about improving psychological safety on your team, please learn more about Range. We hear from teams all the time that Range has helped them get to know each other and feel more like a team. I bet we can help your team, too.

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The power of critique
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