Most creatives are not good at receiving feedback. Quite the opposite in fact. They’ve learned to resist feedback, believing that it’s a part of their job to be “misunderstood” and to fight the “suits”. They dig in their heals to defend their ideas.
And there’s something to be said for this approach. We have to be ready to fight for new ideas because there are so many people who will challenge anything new. Take Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, for example. He mocked the iPhone when it was first launched because it didn’t have a tiny plastic keyboard like all the other smartphones of the time. His lack of vision cost his company the smartphone market, and ultimately cost him his job. If Apple had listened to people like Ballmer, there would be no iPhone.
So resisting feedback is an important part of every creative’s job. But the very best creatives don’t always resist feedback. Great creatives actively seek out feedback, but the difference is that they’ve learned how to do it effectively, so that it helps them to nurture their ideas, rather than knock them down. There are five key stages to generating this kind of constructive feedback.
1. Who to ask
Great feedback scrutinises our ideas from an entirely new angle, and reveals strengths and weaknesses that we were not previously aware of. In other words, it addresses our “blind spots”: the aspects of our work that we are unaware of and can’t see for ourselves.
While we all have our own unique perspective on the world, those closest to us like friends and colleagues tend to share similar points of view. So to address our blind spots we unusually need to look beyond our immediate circle of acquaintances to find the right people to ask for feedback. To do this, we may need to leverage our extended network: a friend of a friend who you’ve never spoken to before may be exactly the right person.
It can be very valuable to get feedback from people with specialist knowledge in the area you’re working in, but it’s also important to get feedback from people with absolutely no specialist knowledge, since they provide an entirely fresh perspective, untarnished by industry norms and preconceptions.
Of course, trusted friends can provide great feedback too, but consider carefully how and why you trust them. If you trust them to always say positive things and provide emotional support, then that’s all very nice, but it means they’re not going to provide the kind of candid, useful creative feedback you really need. Instead, choose the kind of friends that always give you honest feedback, even when they know it may not be what you want to hear.
2. How to ask
Most creative work is developed in response to a brief, so it’s tempting to show someone your brief first, and then show your solution. While this is a perfectly valid approach, it does have some drawbacks.
Firstly, the brief may be wrong. A factual error, a strategic error, some bias or presupposition in the brief may have lead you in the wrong direction. In this case it may have a similar influence upon the person giving you feedback. Better to get them to look at your work and tell you what they assume the brief must have been.
A second, equally important issue is that your target audience will not have the benefit of reading the brief first. They will react to your ideas instantly, intuitively and without first being prepared. They won’t think “well that’s OK considering what the brief was”. If you get feedback from people who have first read the brief, you may miss out on this immediate “gut” reaction.
So, if the person you’re seeking feedback from is in any way representative of the target audience, it may be better to just present them with your idea without having them read the brief first. In fact, without any preamble or explanation whatsoever. If it’s a design, just show them the design and see what happens. If it’s a game, let them play the game! If it’s a song, just shut up and let them listen.
3. How to receive
Asking for feedback is not the same thing as receiving feedback. If your response to every piece of feedback starts with “yes but…” then you probably have not actually listened to the feedback at all. Instead, you’re focusing on how to defend your ideas. If you are serious about getting feedback, then the only response that is required when you receive it is “thank you”. After all, the feedback is what it it is, whether you like it or not. And arguing with it won’t change that.
To maximise the value of the feedback that you are receiving, you should make yourself receptive to it on every level. Kids at school are taught “whole body listening”. They are expected to be quiet, stop fidgeting, face the teacher, look, listen and think. As adults, we don’t have teachers to force us to pay attention in this way, but if we really want to receive high quality feedback, this is exactly how we should be.
Note that whole body listening is not just about hearing - it’s about seeing too. Consider the body language, the expression and the physical state of the person giving you feedback - this non-verbal communication is also a part of their feedback to you.
As adults, we think we know a lot of things. And this belief can often prevent us from learning. Since the purpose of feedback is to reveal our blind spots by getting feedback from a different perspective, the fact is that we know nothing. What may be true for us looking from our perspective may not be true from someone else's perspective. If we’re constantly trying to compare perspectives, we’re not really paying attention to the perspective of the person we’re receiving feedback from. Instead, before receiving feedback, we need to empty our minds of all our presuppositions so that we can adopt a “know nothing” state. This is a state of genuine curiosity, where we want to understand someone else's perspective by receiving all of their feedback faithfully and without judgement.
A final important point on receiving creative feedback: always ask for more. People are sometimes not comfortable with giving feedback. They may be anxious about hurting our feelings, for example. So they may be withholding some of their most important feedback, for fear of offending. To help and encourage them to fully share all of their feedback, it’s worth repeating back exactly what you heard, using their words. This demonstrates that you are really listening to them carefully, and without judgement. And that your are open to receiving more feedback. It should give them the confidence to continue. So then, if you say “and what else is there about that,” you might receive more candid and valuable feedback. On some occasions, the “what else” question prompts more than the person giving feedback even realised they had to offer. The “presupposition” that there is more feedback helps them to dig deeper.
4. How to evaluate
Once you’ve received the feedback and listened to it without judgement, the time finally comes to evaluate it. A great creative doesn’t necessarily take on board all the feedback that they receive. That does not mean that the feedback is not valid. All feedback is valid, because it’s true for the person who is giving it. If you ask someone their opinion, they give it to you. That’s there opinion, whether you like it or not.
So the purpose of the evaluation stage is not to decide whether the feedback is correct. The purpose is to decide which feedback you are going to address. After all, you can’t please everyone. The feedback you have received may be contradictory. And ultimately, it’s your project - other people have given you feedback, but it’s up to you to decide what you’re going to do with it.
It’s important to differentiate the types of feedback that you have received. Some feedback will focus on problems, while others will focus on solutions. Oddly, in this context, the problem feedback is usually more valuable than the solution feedback. That’s because there are usually many different solutions to a single problem. When someone precisely diagnoses a problem for you, they give you the freedom to solve it your way. And since most creative endeavours involve many different interdependent parts, the best solutions are often not directly related to the problem.
Time usually plays are part in this process. Especially when the feedback is not what you’d wanted to hear. It can take days, weeks and sometimes even months to process this type of feedback and decide on a way forward.
5. How to respond
Far from being a sign of indecision, the ability to change your mind is in fact the hallmark of the truly rare breed. A great creative. Someone whose ego is no so fragile that it overrides their creative judgement.
Admitting that our creative work is wrong can be very difficult, because we tend to identify with it very personally. A rejection of our creative work can feel like a rejection of us personally, because we put so much of our own personal style and taste into it. So how do great creatives change their mind and move on so effortlessly?
The answer is simple. While they are passionate about their ideas, they also maintain a certain distance from them. By remaining detached from our ideas, we become much more open to changing our minds. If you choose to own the problem, rather than owning your creative work, then it becomes easy to change your mind and go with someone else's idea, if that provides a better solution to your problem.
If you don’t recall the last time you changed your mind about something, perhaps its time you started listening more closely to feedback.