One question changed feedback for me
One of my favorite quotes by Steve Jobs says you can only connect the dots by looking back, not looking forward. You’ll just have to trust that something will cause them to connect. With that thought in mind, I can easily see one of those dots in my life was working with SuperFriendly. Not only did I get to work with amazing people during the time, but those great colleagues grew into great friends - looking at you Jessi Hall, Nicole Hampton, Isabel Sousa, TJ Pitre, Sara Soueidan (and many more)! They continue to inspire me and provide varied opportunities I would never had if SuperFriendly wasn’t a dot for me.
Go another dot back in my history and you end up with my time working with Dan Mall. Working alongside him provided a learning experience that shifted my way of running teams, projects, and influenced what would become my coaching sessions. Without that first opportunity to work with Dan, I wouldn’t have had the cascade of opportunities that formed for me. I certainly couldn’t anticipate what was to come, but I can appreciate it looking back. Surprisingly, much of it revolves in one unexpected question - a dot all by itself.
The what and how
As I mentioned in my previous post, a large part of my education at Hyper Island focused on how to run projects - not simply focusing on end results exclusively, but how to make sure you’re enjoying the journey and learning along the way. A massive part of that is learning how to effectively give and receive feedback. I can confidently say that our industry generally embraces feedback now compared to two decades ago when feedback, believe it or not, was seen as something ‘soft’. Back then, I learned people generally tend to be better geared to give or receive feedback and struggle with the other. Unfortunately, in order to truly excel in your career path (and personal development too!) you need to be well versed in doing both. They are equally important in your growth. This can be a hard pill to swallow.
People easily focus on the positives in any feedback they receive. Who doesn’t love hearing the good stuff, right? Where we struggle is hearing, or sharing, that there’s room for improvement. It can almost seem unfair in the moment. I learned a great approach to keeping perspective on this when I read Unreasonable Hospitality. It shifted my mindset around feedback:
"Praise is affirmation. Criticism is investment."
To me, praise says “I can see what you’re doing, and I think it’s great - keep going”. Criticism says “I’m investing in you and what you’re doing as I know it will pay off tenfold if executed well”. Kim Scott is onto something similar in her great book Radical Candor:
"That is what happens in Ruinous Empathy—you’re so fixated on not hurting a person’s feelings in the moment that you don’t tell them something they’d be better off knowing in the long run."
Working with SuperFriendly
I remember when I first got the call - well, an email, I’m not that old - from Dan about working with SuperFriendly on a project. I was beyond excited! I had been a big fan of their work for years and I can relate the feel that an up and coming actor might feel getting a call from a big name movie director. The first project with SuperFriendly was serving as a designer on a project for Toast. Not only did I get to work with Dan, but I also got to work with Erika Hall who I had admired for years.
I think one of the things we look for in teams we work with is something that I can only refer to as vibe. I like to think I’ve perfected my vibe-dar (vibe radar? vibe control?). Within minutes on a call with someone, I know if I’m going to enjoy working with the person or not. With the SuperFriendly teams, both this one and those that were to follow, the vibe was always… well, super friendly. It’s really rare to work with people that are genuinely this nice and just interested in doing a good job and supporting one another.
On this project Dan was the Director and I was leading design. It was a great learning opportunity in many ways, but the one question that shifted my mindset around feedback was when Dan and I was reviewing design for the very first time together. After some initial chats, I opened up Figma and Dan casually asked me:
“What kind of feedback are you looking for?”
My mind went completely blank. It stopped. I stalled.
For nearly two decades prior, I had worked on projects where I had given feedback on tons of designs and I’ve had received feedback on probably hundreds, if not thousands, of designs. I can’t remember ever having been asked this question before.
“What do you mean, what kind of feedback?”
Dan in his casual, calm way explained that in order for him to give feedback that’s helpful for me and the project, he needs to know if he should focus the specific details or on the high-level vision stuff (where I actually felt stuck). He wanted to context before we dove in. Again, looking back, it all makes so much sense.
For years, I had always just jumped straight into giving feedback, high and low at the same time . On details as well as the big picture. I used a business perspective, a design style pov, and/or a purely personal preference - not the best choice most of the time. This one question changed how I looked at giving and receiving feedback. It wasn’t about one person. It was about the conversation on both sides AND the goals for what the feedback would accomplish. It was about accomplishing, not praising and not criticizing.
A perk of running my own business, is, well, that I can run it the way I want. That means that I can take on long-term projects, but I can also work with designers on an hourly (literally one hour sessions) to provide coaching and feedback on anything they might need an external pair of eyes on. I think one thing I’ve become good at as a freelancer is quickly understanding the lay of the land and navigating myself across uncertain terrain. I work hard to listen openingly about a situation and provide thoughtful (or so they say) advice on next steps and what to consider on projects without knowing everything. The one question I always ask at the beginning of these calls?
“What kind of feedback are you looking for?”