I disagree: the dangerous business of sharing ideas and giving feedback

I disagree: the dangerous business of sharing ideas and giving feedback

Do facts change our minds? Reason would suggest yes, but experience points to no. Present someone who holds a strong belief with facts that appear to contradict it, and you’re more likely to entrench their position than to reverse it.

This is no recent development or novel product of our supposedly polarising era of social media, fake news and online tribalism. As the psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter wrote over 65 years ago in When Prophecy Fails:

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

The awkward truth is that facts are often better at starting arguments than ending them. There’s a good reason for this apparent contradiction. The things we believe can be precious and deep-rooted – reflecting our identity, politics, upbringings and self-image. When you tell someone that they are wrong, you are knocking down more than an idea. You are challenging a world view, maybe even bringing into question their allegiance to a political or social group. And you are prompting a chemical reaction in the brain that triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response.

As the late executive coach Judith Glaser suggested, most often people choose to fight – in defence of an idea they care about, and in search of the dopamine release that comes with ‘winning’ the argument. “We get addicted to being right.” Understanding this is critical to the practice of innovation, where your own immovable convictions can be the most significant enemies of progress.

Successful innovators have to be much more than idea machines, keen listeners and committed learners. They also need to be willing and open-minded sharers, exposing their inspirations to the world to elicit the feedback and critique that are needed to turn a viable idea into a workable programme or product. The earlier an idea is shared with the people who can help to mould it, generally the better. But doing this can be as hard as coming up with new concepts in the first place. Sharing may be something we teach to children, but in the context of innovation it requires us to overcome some of our strongest instincts and most deep-seated aversions.

Dispassion meets compassion

The first thing to recognise about sharing is that it can be terrifying. An idea that might have been months or even years in the making is about to take its first steps, and the thought it might stumble or fall can be hard to bear. But the individual or team behind that idea must acknowledge that those first steps are essential if it is ever to reach viability. And the earlier they are taken, the less painful any trips and grazed knees are going to be.

It is not just the act of sharing that matters. The attitude and intent behind it are also critical. Good sharers don’t just think about themselves and their work. Like the best listeners, they take into account the perspective and values of the person they are sharing with, recognising when different parties are coming to the table with contrasting agendas and priorities. A regulator or government official is by nature going to be more focused on implications for compliance and policy frameworks than an entrepreneur who may require these things to evolve in recognition of new technology. Fail to recognise and cater for those differences, and a productive discussion quickly becomes a tetchy showdown.

Good faith on the part of the sharer needs to be matched on the opposite side of the table. Those invited to provide feedback should recognise how much is emotionally at stake for those sharing, and show that they support them and their ideas even as they offer criticisms that could be significant .

Truly constructive feedback offers more than critique: it also presents a path forward (or backward) and a ladder to climb down. As the US politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has suggested:

“Always give someone the golden gate of retreat. Give someone enough rope, give someone enough compassion, enough opportunity in a conversation for them to look good changing their mind.”

Sharing is a two-way process, and unless the dispassion of those putting forward ideas is matched by the compassion of those helping to mould them, it risks falling apart into mutual antagonism and distrust.

Have a process

The attitude of people presenting and responding to proposals is important, but no less than the process which surrounds the sharing of both ideas and critique. One of the mistakes some innovation teams make is to take an informal, almost haphazard approach to feedback: everyone gets a say, no matter what stage of the process, or what form the input takes.

Personal experience suggests that this is the road to hell: the incidental nature of such interactions makes them feel less intentional and more personal. People become more inclined to get locked in an individual battle of wills than a constructive dialogue about the idea.

Tiptoeing through the emotional minefield that is sharing, process provides a safeguard for all parties. It emphasises the necessity of sharing as well as providing a model for how to do it effectively. At Brink, feedback is never offered without invitation, but is encouraged through a culture in which critical friendship is a key pillar. People know they need to seek feedback, but they do it on their own terms and in their own time.

Famously, the animation studio Pixar has used its Braintrust – a focus group of its most experienced creatives – to critique films (often brutally) at a key stage of development. “Naturally, every director would prefer to be told that his film is a masterpiece,” co-founder Ed Catmull wrote in Creativity Inc. “But because of the way the Braintrust is structured, the pain of being told that flaws are apparent or revisions are needed is minimized. The film – not the filmmaker – is under the microscope.”

This captures much of how sharing can and should be done in the innovation environment:

  • Make it about the idea, not the originator.
  • Have a process to which all are signed-up, which does much to limit the personal dimension of giving feedback.
  • And be compassionate: have empathy and remember this is one of the most difficult, delicate stages of giving life to a product, service or platform.

The essential business of sharing becomes much easier, and more effective, when your organisation has a shared vision and approach for how it should be done.

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