pm@olin: Feedback (Class 7)

For this workshop, I focused on the idea of doing personal level feedback rather than Product Critique. My rational was that this is (a) harder and (b) a good foundation to build from in terms of other feedback. If I were doing it again, I would try to include both.

For this class, a huge thanks goes to Alicia Morga who took the time to share some resources and exercises that she uses when teaching this subject. She’s spent a ton of time working on this, and I actually took one of her prototype classes on giving feedback. Her work formed the core of the this class, and I made some adjustments for Olin. Anything that went wrong is purely my fault :)

1. Learn some frameworks for personal interaction and feedback.
2. Learn how to give and receive feedback in a team setting.

Optional Reading
(again, thanks to Alicia Morga).

  1. Five Levels of Communication (Francisco)
  2. Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ (Goleman)
  3. Influence without Authority (Bradford and Cohen)
  4. Emotions Revealed (Ekman)
  5. Difficult Conversations (Stone)
  6. Thanks for the Feedback (Stone)
  7. How to Talk so Kids Will Listen (Faber and Mazlich) — technically a parenting book with good communication advice.
  8. What We Say Matters (Lasater and Lasater)

Whiteboard and markers

Ground Rules

This is the first class that I set unique Ground Rules for. Given that feedback is a charged topic, at the beginning I went through these rules. I also gave anyone who wasn’t feeling open to receiving feedback the option to leave the classroom (no penalty). No one took me up on it.

1. Be 100% Present. This means no side conversations, no technology, no leaving the room when we aren’t having a break.
2. Take the most respectful possible interpretation. This means not jumping to conclusions about what someone else says, or their situation. We’re all here to help each other
3. No discussing outside. While it’s totally open to discuss the frameworks and tools we used (or use them!) no one should discuss personal stories outside of the room.

Exercises — 2.5 hours

We covered four exercises in the classroom. I tried to write down the baseline length of time the exercise took — but between each exercise we reflected and talked about what we learn, so each took a bit longer.

House Drawing & Lecture — 30+ Minutes

For the first exercise, I and each student draw a house. Then, I had the group give them feedback on the house. The idea was to get an idea of where people started in a very low pressure situation.


I used this to introduce a few different frameworks:

Complimentary vs. Constructive — The first few pieces of house feedback were all what we often call “positive feedback” — “I like the house, I like the tree you included” etc.

I took this as an opportunity to introduce new language. Positive/negative gives an unfair perception of one type of feedback being good and the other bad. In reality, both types are valuable. I also shared the notion that the best time to give complimentary feedback is when the action is happening to reinforce the behavior

Then we got some constructive feedback involved. This allowed me to share:

Don’t use the “shit sandwich” — compliment/criticism/compliment — this makes things seem disingenuous. As mentioned above, it’s better to give feedback at the time it’s relevant.

Feedback should be specific — Many of the pieces of feedback were also too general. We talked about how to give specific, constructive feedback that would be actionable.

When to Give Feedback — 20 Minutes

The house exercise naturally transitioned us into some questions around “when to give feedback?” This allowed us to cover some of the reasons people are reluctant to give feedback (fear of jeopardizing the relationship in particular).

The answer here is “Ask First” — the key tenant here is to ask first and get buy in before giving feedback. There’s nothing wrong with being honest and saying “can I give you some feedback?”

This also led to the question of “well, can I say no if someone wants to give me feedback?”

We talked about some reasons why people reluctant receive feedback. One big one is that people often have the mental mis-model that if they get feedback, they need to change. A better mental model to work with is that if you get feedback, that’s just more information that you can use as you like. Feedback is a gift.

We talked about how accepting feedback can be a good way to build a relationship, and you can choose to disregard the feedback if you want to. We also discussed the five levels of communication and taking things deeper or back up a level depending on the comfort of both parties involved.

Personal Stories — 20+ Minutes

We then applied the lecture exercise using another short framework — the students got into pairs, shared a personal story, and then gave feedback on the story using our new frameworks. Then each pair flipped and tried it the other way. This was a low pressure way to help internalize the new frameworks.

Giving Feedback to Someone else — 40+ minutes

We then took this up a notch. Each student came up with a scenario in which they’d like to give feedback to someone else.

Everyone paired up in pairs of Student A/ Student B.

Student A described the person they wanted to give feedback to to Student B.
Student A pretended to be THEIR PERSON.
Student B pretended to be Student A and gave feedback.
Student A responded as though they were their person.

This was a way to remove some emotion from the experience and see how someone else would provide feedback. Additionally, it provided some empathy for how the other student might feel while receiving feedback.

Johari Windows — 30+ minutes

We concluded with Johari windows. Students paired up with another student that they knew well. Then they did the classic Johari window exercise — picking five adjectives to describe themselves, and five to describe their partner. They created personal windows using the four traditional categories: “open, blind spot, private, and unknown.”

Giving Feedback — X minutes

If we’d had more time, I wanted the students to actually practice giving feedback in a genuine situation. The issue was that we ran out of time, and also that most students didn’t feel a need to give feedback to people in the room.

Selected Changes / Notes

1. Today was an interesting class. The feedback that I got from the students was that these exercises were less immediately helpful than some of the ones we’d done on other days. My gut feeling is that it’s because the other ones (i.e. launching and specs) were concrete skills students hadn’t seen before — this is a bit more nebulous. I also didn’t feel like many of these were helpful right when I did them, but I think it helps in the long run. I’m curious to see how students feel in a couple weeks/months.
2. I think partially that these students were also relatively aware of these concepts, even if they hadn’t formally learned them. Olin has a pretty strong feedback culture, so people tend to learn by doing — even if they don’t know the words.
3. I wish we’d had more actual conflict so we could do feedback in the classroom. If we had a class project, that would have been a good opportunity to include it.
4. I also wish I’d included more on the practical side of Product critique. I might work that in later in the class.