Giving Productive Feedback for Creative Work

When you are asked to give feedback, are you honest? Are you brutally honest? Or are you rather diplomatic? Are you flatout lying, as in “yes, those new shoes look really cute on you….” Giving feedback can be hard. And giving feedback to someone’s creative work is even harder, because it is seems more personal and creative projects are vulnerable, especially in the early stages. The creative work I’m referencing is not limited to artistic projects and isn’t only relevant for departments that are typically considered creative, like marketing, but any projects that include novel ideas or that attempt to solve problems creatively.

As a recent study referenced by Spencer Harrison in The Harvard Business Review shows, employees have difficulty providing productive, meaningful feedback. Either feedback is rare, or it is mostly perceived as negative. In my workshops with teams, I have experienced this as well. Often I notice people hesitate to comment on the creative work of another. There is also a hesitance to ask co-workers for feedback  help in general. The reason for for this behavior that I hear most is that everyone is very busy and has a high workload and taking up somebody else’s time is seen as intrusive and disturbs the work flow. In the groups I work with, behavior changes when two things happen. First, through facilitated discussions, the team starts to see the value that feedback can provide and how it increases a team’s productivity and efficiency. They understand that working in silos takes longer and doesn’t provide the same quality of result that working together offers and will ask for feedback more often. Second, understanding how to give and receive productive feedback for creative projects lowers the fear of saying the wrong thing.

New ideas are fragile and  comments like “that won’t work” or “we tried that in the past” can crush a creative idea before it can even be explored. But even more often I witness teams who are worried about stepping on someone’s toes and being disrespectful to someone else’s work or idea. So they nod politely but are afraid to give honest feedback.

How can you learn to give productive feedback for creative work?

In the article mentioned above, Steve Harrison names two parameters that positively influence the outcome of feedback.

  1. Giving Productive FeedbackOpen ended questions that leave room for unexpected observations lead to better results than narrow questions. They allow for a novel viewpoint instead of being limited by a prescribed perspective. They show that the person asking is genuinely curious and is not just trying to seek for affirmation.
  2. Provide feedback is based on subjectivity. Feedback on creative work should express that it is just an opinion and not an objective judgement.

In math there usually is a right and a wrong answer. When talking about creative ideas this is not the case. We share opinions that might be more or less convincing or backed up with evidence, but they always remain opinions.

I recently attended my first Toastmaster meeting. Part of every one of their meetings is that each speaker will be critiqued by a designated judge. In one of those cases it was rather painful to hear a critique with which I strongly disagreed. I imagined the speaker, who was eager to improve, taking all those words for granted and learning a lesson from this experience that, in my opinion, was not doing him justice. And I strongly hope that the speaker was able to perceive that it was just one person’s opinion.

When I was working as a theater director I appreciated getting feedback from people in the audience who made clear that their viewpoint was personal. I remember one lady telling me with tears in her eyes how she was touched by one scene because it reminded her so much of the times she experienced with her mother. And the feedback doesn’t have to be positive. One man expressed to me that he felt very uncomfortable seeing prenatal gymnastics on stage, since he considered that to be too private to be exposed. In both cases I was able to understand that their comments were personal opinions. But sometimes you meet people who phrase their opinion as if it is an objective truth – “this is not what Mozart would have wanted” – and they give the impression that they are the ultimate judge. This type of  feedback often leaves a negative aftertaste.

Negative feedback can become destructive when it occurs in the early and vulnerable stage of a creative project. Ed Catmull, the founder and president of Pixar Animations, describes in his memoir, Creativity Inc., that at the early stages all of their movies “suck.” They are like “ugly babies” who are “vulnerable and incomplete.” Not all of those ugly babies will grow up to adulthood, but the process of providing this honest feedback benefits the creative process. A feedback that points out the (hidden) quality and potential without sugarcoating the project with blind praise.

A fundamental game of improvisation is called “Yes, and…”. It implies that you don’t negate an idea, you take it as it is and add your own ideas and insights to it to enrich it. The game is played between two people. One starts a conversation with a simple statement like “ I am so excited we are going to Paris.” The next person responds by starting with “Yes, and…. ” “Yes, and I can’t wait to climb the Eiffel Tower.”The conversation continues and each sentence begins with “Yes, and….”

Sometimes the idea of “Yes, and…” is misunderstood as accepting everything uncritically. But a team that internalizes the concept of “Yes, and…” won’t just blame the ugly duckling for being ugly, which is obvious, but adds on to it to build up the possibilities so it might grow into a swan or an eagle.

Productive feedback includes open ended questions, phrasing feedback as a personal opinion, and the ability to carry each other’s ideas on by adding own input.

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” – Bill Gates


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