Feedback: The Motivation Superpower

Intrinsic motivation, left to itself, can be unfocused. This is especially true across an entire organization. There are ways to improve focus through establishing shared values and getting everyone to tell the same story, but there are also mechanisms for improving the focus of an individual’s intrinsic motivations. Few of these mechanisms are more fundamental than feedback.

I don’t mean peer review forms or a semi-annual sit-down with the boss. I mean simple feedback loops that work throughout every day.

Simple feedback works like this: A subject takes an action, there is a reaction, and information about the reaction is returned to the subject, who can then use the information about the reaction to modify her activity. I touch a hot kettle, the kettle burns my fingers, my nerves send information about my fingers burning back to me, and I pull my hand away. This is how fundamental feedback is. But because so much business in today’s world is abstract, we have to construct feedback loops deliberately rather than expecting feedback to happen on its own.

Lack of feedback can quickly erode motivation. And the more entrepreneurial or “self-starting” a position is, the more important feedback is to the person in that position. Feedback is your sight, like a bat echoing its own songs to understand the contour of the world around it. If you don’t hear an echo, how do you know what to do?

Yet for how fundamental it is, it’s surprisingly easy to forget. And then it’s surprisingly easy to chalk up motivation problems to lack of incentives, or poor leadership, or other priorities getting in the way, when really the people around you are lost in a world that doesn’t echo back at them.

How can you create effective feedback?

Feedback must be immediate, contextual, and apparent. Feedback is a behavioral stimulus–it has to fit both the time and the context of the action that caused it, and it has to be clear and concise in order to reveal information that’s useful for subsequent action.

This doesn’t mean feedback is always a result of things that are done–sometimes it’s the result of something that’s undone. Networking sites like LinkedIn and dating sites like tend to provide feedback in the form of a percentage completion bar to let you know how “complete” your profile is. Of course, your profile on these sites is as complete as you want it to be–but by creating this bit of feedback, such sites are able to encourage participants to improve the quality of information about themselves without offering any incentive other than having a “more complete” profile.

Feedback is a leadership superpower because all feedback is either grounded on some fixed point (values), directed toward some fixed point (objectives), or both. Thus continuous feedback is a way of aligning the efforts of a team toward the same values and objectives. And if you focus on those ends–values and objectives–when providing feedback, you can effectively avoid micromanagement while getting results that both satisfy your goals and represent your team.

Sometimes as a leader, I may have to manufacture feedback. This may require a shift in perspective: rather than believing there’s no feedback available because something is tied up in political limbo, I may need to provide feedback on the work itself–its quality, its relevance, etc. My team member will be able to take that feedback and apply it to other efforts. As a consequence, they’ll also be creating value that better fits my own vision, since it’s directed toward my feedback.

I may also have to generate feedback for myself. One way to go about this is to establish clear expectations with every completed action. After completing something for which I expect feedback–which does not necessarily mean something that requires “notes” or changes–I can mention the kind of information I want to receive and the date by which I would like to receive it, and then follow-up after the appointed time has passed. Remember this information should be immediate (and contextual), concise, and oriented toward fulfilling values and accomplishing objectives; it should as a result be quick and easy for the requested party to provide.

Proper application of feedback can, on its own, stimulate a lot of action without the addition of artificial incentives. It’s the first step in turning intrinsic motivation outward, but it doesn’t yet offer an actual incentive–merely a reflection. The information reflected back at us also implies specific objectives–something that someone outside of us is looking to find, and therefore something we can work specifically to improve, which we do if we have the intrinsic desire to create something useful for another person. Giving feedback without tying it to any extrinsic reward is the second level of motivational strategy.

What are some effective ways you’ve found to provide feedback to others? What ways have you learned to solicit useful feedback from others?

Can We Open-Source the Law?

Here’s a wild idea for you.

When the United States was formed as the first modern democracy, its founders had some pretty crazy ideas about how the democratic system would work. People would be elected and leave their jobs to become lawmakers for several years, and then return to their jobs and let someone else take a stab at it. It was an efficient approach to getting the perspectives of the people who made up the nation to collaborate on laws.

But how would they have written the Constitution if they had today’s technologies and insights? Would it have been different?

Enter Jos de Blok, CEO of Buurtzorg, a nursing organization that turned the business of home-care on its head. Unlike traditional leadership that does extensive strategizing and change planning, de Blok has a blog. When he’s planning a change in operations–usually a small, incremental change rather than a massive treatise–he posts it on the blog and allows 24 hours for response from an organization of nearly 8,000. Based on feedback, he proceeds, amends, throws out, or gathers a task force to hammer out the details.

The specifics of Buurtzorg’s approach will not apply for every organization, but the concept is sound: Centralized (non-hierarchical) management of an open-sourced approach.

Open-sourcing has provided not just stable software but some of the most secure software in the world, despite the early concerns over its transparency and malleability. Yet the approach has yet to make much of a leap to other fields, despite being at its core a knowledge method and not a software-specific method. (Wikipedia is among the few notable examples.)

There’s a lot to be learned from the way open-source groups guide development. Many have small development teams that are able to invest and focus on key features that aren’t getting as much attention on the outside. Some companies identify features that have to be developed in a closed environment in order to be valuable, and embed them within a different version of the product. But there are often so many eyes on every line of the source code that it’s difficult to deliberately sabotage the effort, and developers who comb through the code before a final release are typically able to pull out unnecessary operations and tie up loose ends.

These open-source software projects are at work in the wild, accessible to billions of people, and many of the developers working on them have very little personal stake in the outcome except their own excitement about and investment in the project.

Suppose these same techniques were used to guide your organization, every member of which is deeply invested in your policies and decisions. Instead of investing in a complex analysis of the state of your company, you’d get immediate feedback from the people who know it best. Instead of deciding on a change plan and having to get buy-in from every last member of your organization, you’d already have a good chunk of your organization on board. Instead of having to course-correct in the middle of an enormous project, your incremental changes would correct themselves.

If it sounds idealistic, that’s because it is. Don’t misunderstand: It’s a completely practical approach, and may even become a necessary approach to managing large organizations in ten or twenty years. But it’s also idealistic because it requires leaders to relinquish power, and perhaps just as importantly it puts them on uncertain footing. Leaders not only want power for its own sake, they want power because they don’t trust their people, and this approach to an organization’s policy and strategy relies absolutely on trust.

Fortunately there are ways to develop that trust, some of which I’ve already written about. You can treat your employees as partners. You can remove the stigma of failure. You can establish shared values. And as always, you should approach it in the way that works best for your specific organization. But as with any change, at some point you will have to make a leap without knowing exactly where you will land. It can be terrifying, but it’s the only way we accomplish any meaningful change.

Perhaps the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have open-sourced America’s laws even if they’d had the tools. But on the whole they were the kind of people who were always trying to improve upon the work of others. We’d be doing them a disservice if we didn’t try to improve upon theirs, even if it’s only within our own small organizations.

I’m looking forward to discussing your insights and concerns in the comments below.

The Four Ways to Fail

What does it mean to fail well?

As I’ve discussed, it’s definitely more important than success. But it’s possible to fail badly. What does it mean to fail well?

Knowing how to fail is more important than knowing why you failed or why you succeeded. Knowing how to fail will transform your organization.

The worst way to fail is to lay blame and chop heads. This is a common reaction, but it is a reaction that is incongruous with failure. If someone sabotages your business, or if someone betrays you, it makes sense that you would cut them off before they do more damage, but cutting down someone who makes a sincere effort is counterproductive. Blaming and cutting people down will only sabotage future success without doing anything to change the current failure, and encourages a culture that hides mistakes out of fear rather than acknowledging and dealing with them.

The second-worst way to fail is to brush aside the failure and move forward as though it never happened. This is what people will do when they operate in an environment where failure is seen as unequivocally bad. Failure gets swept under the rug before it gets worse. If you frequently discover failures at the last minute or even after the fact–failures that were hidden–it means the people working for your business don’t feel safe to fail. The first step toward failing well is being allowed to fail at all.

The second-best way to fail is to acknowledge the failure as quickly as possible, assess the damage and the causes, and put into place an action plan to deal with the failure. Documenting the causes and circumstances of failure creates important data points for later improvement, an improvement that will likely become a big project of its own.

The best way to fail is to put into place a methodology that anticipates failure. It’s surprising how often failure is unexpected, which is to say we expect success and then deal with failure as it comes. Far better is to expect failure in the process of improving success. Establishing a methodology not just to take advantage of failure but to make it an integral part of your business is by far the best way to fail, and allows us to improve continuously without having to turn improvement into its own project.

Two side notes: There are, of course, types of failure that are outright dangerous, from design defects in automobile safety systems to errors in financial calculations that cause massive losses. For good reason, such things require redundancy, regulation, and testing to ensure they are safe.

And secondly: If failure happens to be unequivocally bad for your job, you’d better start looking into new careers, because you’re likely to be automated away.

This Is More Important Than Success

We have been told not to let our failures get us down, and many people believe this means we should put our failures behind us as quickly as possible and keep moving. We spend hours, days, months, examining successes and trying to emulate them and turn them into strategies.

But failing well is more important than success. Success is just success, and there’s not much more you can do; but failure is opportunity, and it will slip away if you don’t seize it.

When an effort has the result I intend, it can be for any combination of reasons, both within and beyond my control. But when I don’t get the result I’m looking for, it’s important for me to find out what I can about why I didn’t succeed, look for the variables I could have influenced, and at the very least try something different next time. If I move too quickly past my failures, I’m likely to repeat them; if I move too quickly past my successes, at worst I may forget to celebrate them. (Celebrating successes is important too–but we’ll get to that later.)

As you might have heard, the road to success is paved with failures. If you plan to succeed on a regular basis, you’ll need to learn how to pave.

Ignoring the importance of failing well doesn’t just mean repeating your mistakes. It also has an impact on your organization’s culture. Your employees tend to do less work at or above their level of competence for fear of doing it incorrectly, which means that higher-level employees and managers are left doing lower-level work. So much for “high-performance culture.”

Glossing over failures at the organization level also leads to poor communication at the individual level. If I’m trying to make the failures of my business disappear, should I really be surprised when an employee makes an enormous miscalculation and doesn’t tell me about it until the last minute? The more failure is accepted and dealt with properly, the less stigma will be attached to it and the easier it will become to handle.

It should come as no surprise that this applies to your life as well as your business. Anticipate failure and learn how to fail well, and it will lead you to a richer, wiser life.