Collaborative Learning

Giving and Getting Feedback

About this Lesson

Up to this point, we’ve learned the following:

  • Learning efficiently is a key to business success.
  • Learning through trial-and-error is prohibitively expensive for most of us.
  • Getting effective balancing and reinforcing feedback leads to efficient learning.
  • “Benefits and Concerns” is a technique for eliciting effective feedback.

In this conversation, we build upon the preceding:

  • Who can give us useful feedback?
  • What values underpin effective feedback and collaborative learning?
  • Where does collaborative learning go awry?
  • What can we do to keep our learning on track?

Eliciting Feedback is a Form of Collaborative Learning

You don’t need an expert to give you good feedback. You need somebody with a perspective different from yours.

The “Johari Window” is a tool that helps us understand where we can have the most productive conversations. We’re most comfortable discussing what both parties can already see. However, because the point of seeking feedback is to learn, it’s important to seek complementary perspectives to help reduce our blind spot.

Johari Window

By engaging in productive conversations with people who have a complementary perspective, we can shrink our blind spot.

Rather than viewing feedback as an event, it’s useful to think of it as an ongoing process of seeking out and engaging perspectives different than our own. Making learning habitual takes discipline. Too often, we’re victims of our own confirmation bias. By seeking affirmation and validation in the guise of feedback, we create our own filter bubbles. As a consequence, we can blind ourselves while deluding ourselves that we’re learning.

Confirmation Bias

The Values Underpinning Effective Feedback

Productive learning can be uncomfortable because it forces us to stretch. By focusing on the values identified by Chris Argyris as keys to productive reasoning, we can overcome our hesitancy to confront our discomfort:

  • Mutual respect—we acknowledge that each of us is capable of learning.
  • Valid information—we focus on that which can improve our decision-making.
  • Informed choice—when seeking feedback, we’re not asking to be told what to do. We accept our personal volition and responsibility for our actions.

Defensive reasoning, on the other hand, can inhibit learning. One such defensive behavior is to unilaterally protect others from being hurt by withholding information. We’re afraid to say what we really think because we think the other person can’t handle the truth. While we convince ourselves that we’re doing the other person a service by shielding them from our honest perspective, what we’re really saying is, “You’re not capable of learning.” If our perspective is based on valid information, if we believe our counterpart is capable of learning, and if we truly respect their agency, then we are obligated to share our point of view. To do otherwise is a false kindness.

Chris Argyris

Keeping Learning On Track

To paraphrase Rob Fitzpatrick, the author of The Mom Test, it’s our responsibility to create the conditions under which we can receive useful feedback. Some tactics we can use to maximize the potential for learning include the following:

  • Seek one-on-one conversations. If you seek feedback from somebody who has an audience, they may feel too constrained to say what they really think.
  • Favor informal conversations over formal meetings. Formal meetings tend to devolve into sales pitches. According to Fitzpatrick, keep your “three most important” questions in mind at all times. You’ll be better prepared to take full advantage of chance encounters.
  • Don’t be satisfied with generalizations. Asking probing questions to understand the observable data underpinning inferences. Ask, “Under what conditions is what you say is true? What have you observed or experienced that leads you to that conclusion?”

By actively shaping the context and asking “high gain” questions, we improve our chances of getting good, productive feedback, accelerating learning, and avoiding expensive mistakes.

The Mom Test

Next Steps

In our next conversation, we’ll discuss the “Ladder of Inference,” another one of Chris Argyris’ frameworks. It’s important that we develop the skills necessary to unpack beliefs and conclusions into their constituent data, meanings, and assumptions. Equally, we must be able to build on lower levels of inference in order to reach conclusions, develop beliefs, and take action. Consequently, each participant in collaborative learning must have the capacity to navigate the Ladder of Inference.

Key Ideas

  • Productive feedback doesn’t require expertise. Rather, it requires a complementary perspective.
  • Learning—hence seeking feedback—is an iterative, collaborative process.
  • Mutual respect, valid information, and informed choice are essential for productive collaborative learning.
  • Be prepared to engage in informal conversations by having your “three questions” in mind.
  • Dig deeper. Don’t be satisfied with vague generalizations.

Read the Video Transcript

Laura, in our previous conversations we’ve talked about how much founders of human scale businesses have to learn. So there’s a practical requirement to learn efficiently. And we also talked about the role of feedback, both balancing and reinforcing feedback, in making sure that we are learning efficiently. In the last conversation, you presented a framework called “Benefits and Concerns,” which is a way to elicit both balancing and reinforcing feedback.

So when we’re in the process of seeking feedback, it’s commonplace for a lot of us to be apprehensive about it. And there’s a tendency to seek out affirmation. One of our favorite books is “The Mom Test.” You won’t go to your mom to ask for feedback on your business plan because she’s not going to tell you the truth. How do we make sure that we’re not falling into the trap of merely seeking affirmation when we’re really looking for useful, credible feedback?

If we seek out feedback that confirms what we already think, then we really aren’t learning anything. The whole point of feedback is to hear things that we haven’t thought of yet. So what we want is a complementary perspective.

We all have blind spots. And some social scientists developed the “Johari Window” as a way to demonstrate that there are some things that both of us can see. So they developed this 2 by 2 matrix. Each axis is divided in half and says, what I can see and what you can see, and that creates four quadrants. The one that we like to focus on usually is what we both can see.

But where we really learn the most is when we ask people what they can see that we can’t see. Because that’s where we hear the unexpected. That’s when we finally recognize that what we intended was not what the other people experienced.

When we ask for feedback, we are essentially expanding that territory of what we both can see. And that expands the realm of choice that we have.

So one of the implications is that, because we can never see everything that may be relevant to our decision making, the process of getting feedback is an ongoing one.

It is best to think of feedback as an iterative process, something that we’re always eager to seek and learn. An attitude of curiosity is really helpful here. Approaching life as an experiment instead of a pass-fail exam is really helpful. And then also approaching people who want to give us feedback, even if it’s uncomfortable for us, with a collaborative attitude, because we can learn from it. And when we’re learning we are avoiding expensive mistakes.

So what are the conditions under which collaborative learning is really the most productive?

I found a lot of help in Chris Argyris’ work. He identified three values in particular that are useful for establishing the conditions for really productive learning. Those are mutual respect, valid information, and informed choice.
So when we talk about mutual respect, we mean that we attribute that each of us is capable of learning. And when we talk about valid information, we’re seeking information that can help us make better decisions. And that gets right at the seeking disconfirming information of our assumptions rather than affirming feedback. And then when we talk about informed choice, when we ask for feedback, we’re not asking for someone to tell us what to do. We always take responsibility for our own actions, and with the feedback, we can make more insightful decisions about how to act.

Tell me, what are common ways for collaborative conversations to go awry? How do things break down?

The experts in productive reasoning talk about how we engage in defensive routines. And the underlying premise of defensive routines is to have this attitude that, “I’m smart, and you’re stupid.” That can lead to all kinds of maladaptive behaviors.

For one thing, when we ask for feedback, we may be asking leading questions because we really think– So we sound like we’re one of those attorneys leading the witness on the stand, ‘Isn’t it true that…?”– And so we’re really inhibiting the other person’s ability to consider what they really think and to articulate that to us.

Another way that this can go awry is if we attribute that the other person isn’t capable of learning, then when we’re providing feedback we’re afraid to say what we really think because maybe they just can’t handle the truth, they’ll just crumble. But if you think about what’s at stake in the context of running your own business, we can’t afford not to hear feedback, even if it’s uncomfortable. We need it in order to learn. Most of us just don’t have deep enough pockets to fund really slow learning about how to succeed in the companies that we establish and run.

So there’s plenty of opportunity in collaborative conversations to expand our learning or understanding. It also is sort of fraught with peril in terms of people’s defensive routines, or they just don’t necessarily share the values that contribute to productive conversations. What kind of tactics can we use to help make sure that we’re getting the most out of our feedback when it’s not always true that both parties in the conversation are equally skilled at giving and getting feedback?

One approach that I think is useful is to set up low-stakes situations for eliciting feedback. Those are usually one-on-one conversations. Because if the person we ask for feedback has an audience, then that can be distracting. They may feel like, for other reasons, they need to hold a particular perspective or point of view or line of argument. That just gets in the way of hearing what they really think from a perspective that’s different from ours. So, one-on-one conversations are useful.

Then I would advocate that we never be satisfied with generalizations or high on the Ladder of Inference feedback, like, “That’s great,” or, “I would definitely buy that.” It feels really good to hear, but what we really need to understand is what they’re seeing and how they interpret what they’re seeing and experiencing in order to come to that conclusion. So when I say never be satisfied, you can say, “Thank you, and what are you looking at that leads you to that interpretation? What are you seeing that makes you think that that’s the right thing to click on or the right action to take at that point?”

Anytime you can bring the conversation back to that directly observable data, that domain of what we can see, and then understand more clearly how other people interpret that in ways different from how we do, we have opportunities to improve what we’re doing and change what we’re doing to get the actions and the responses that we most desire.

What are the key points that you’d like people to take away from our conversation today?

I’d like people to understand that you don’t need an expert to give you good feedback. You need somebody with a perspective different from yours. The point of asking for feedback, and it’s something we want to do on a continual basis, is to learn—to learn faster and more efficiently so that we get where we want to go sooner and with less pain and less expense. It’s all about being effective in the work that we care about.