It will be obvious to many that I’ve been extremely busy of late. There has been a significant amount of work underway on many fronts. It has been awesome, but it’s also been challenging.
It has been a process that has helped to highlight a dichotomy in producing deliverables. On the one hand, you need to channel a level of confidence to be comfortable in recommending a particular path. And on the other, you need to channel enough humility to allow others to provide feedback and criticism. And you need to do this over and over again.
This can be a spectacular roller-coaster. Producing a good, solid deliverable is its own journey and its own challenge. Particularly when you are building something new, when you are working to make it relevant and when you care about making it resonate and be valued by those who will use it.
One of the enjoyable challenges of the last few months is just how many projects I’ve been invited to be involved with that are a little further off the beaten path. While each project is solidly aligned with my skills and expertise, each one is also particular and unique in the solution it is looking for. They have been initiated by organizations that care about the outcomes they realize. None are about going through the motions, or producing something that is simply derivative of what has come before.
That’s not to downplay just how difficult it is to build something that is appropriate, valued and valuable. You have to challenge the work and you have to challenge yourself. You frequently run into barriers and roadblocks. You face choices and alternatives. You make what are sometimes arbitrary decisions so that you can keep going forward, trying to choose the most promising path while sometimes not being sure where it’s going to lead.
In particular, you have to put yourself into the mindset of those who will use the result. You need to understand their perspective, identify what they need to know and provide that using a structure and language that they can embrace and relate with. You wrestle with finding simple, clear and compelling ways to communicate an idea. You write, you edit and you rewrite. And eventually you let it out into the world, so that it can be actually used.
By the time the thing is done, not only have you put in a lot of time and effort. You’ve also put a lot of yourself into it. You’ve often sweated and struggled. The choices that have been made are your choices. They are your words, sentences and paragraphs. Everything that is included—we hope—is there for a reason and purpose.
Producing something is ultimately an act of confidence—even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time. Putting it out there in the world, however, is an act of faith. And before you do that, you have to endure the challenge of having others review and critique your work.
This, by far, is where the biggest challenge lies. Your reviewers haven’t wrestled with your choices. They haven’t followed your journey. They don’t know what options you weighed. They simply deal with the final result. They bring fresh eyes to the exercise, unburdened by all of the reasons and history behind how the work got to the shape it did.
That’s a useful thing, of course. By the time we finish something, we have often lost all perspective—or at least a lot of it. We are close to the work because we have to be. Reviewers have the benefit of distance. They are working with the finished product, without necessarily knowing—or caring—about each interim working draft.
At the same time, it’s easy for feedback from reviewers to appear arbitrary. Whether the feedback is about word choice, structure or concept, they are simply reacting and responding to what is in front of them. They can—and do—ask for changes, because that is their role. And it’s our role to consider and evaluate those requests and choose how to respond.
Receiving feedback on something we have produced is a very personal thing. This is where ego comes into play. We’ve built something, we’ve poured ourselves into it and now others are evaluating, weighing and judging what we have done. They are picking at it, sometimes ripping it apart and in all instances asking us to do something differently. It is incredibly easy to become defensive and confrontational. We can argue the point, defend our choices and protect the work. Or we can listen to what they have to say.
Learning to accept and receive feedback is hard. If I’m honest, it’s not something I did well early in my career. I was passionate about my work. I cared about what I did, and I cared about its integrity. Often to the point of arguing down any attempt to change or influence it. I was often arguably defensive, hostile and resistant to suggested changes.
Getting the ego out of the way doesn’t necessarily get easier over time, but it’s incredibly important to recognize the need to do so. For me, that usually requires a conscious recognition of the need to shift gears. I need to explicitly recognize and acknowledge that I’m stepping out of development mode and shifting into review mode. My job is now to constructively hear the feedback of others and help them to get a deliverable that most effectively works for them, and use their feedback to do that.
I may fervently believe that what I’ve produced already meets the measure that has been set for it. I might have a view that it’s well crafted, appropriately structured, written at the right level and targeted to best support the client organization accomplishing their goals. Hell, I might just think that it’s perfect just the way it is. That doesn’t matter in the slightest. If they have feedback, I need to hear it.
Not only do I need to hear what is said, I need to understand why it’s being said. I need to be able to get to the essence of what the concern is, and why they are reacting as they are and providing the feedback they’re contributing. I need to understand where that’s coming from and what it means. And I’m not going to be able to do that if I’m being defensive or mentally preparing a rebuttal.
That means I pretty much need to keep my ego out of the room. The mental attitude that I have adopted over time is that the feedback that I’m receiving is, in essence, gaining me continuing insight into their requirements. I’m finding out what will best deliver a solution for them, and make that solution as easy for them to use and as valuable as possible. And ultimately that should be my goal.
That doesn’t mean that I just listen, take whatever they say, and quietly haul myself back to my office to cry bitter tears of rejection while resignedly making whatever changes they have asked for. Not in the slightest. I need to hear the feedback, but I also need to understand it. What is being said overtly is not necessarily—or usually—what will ultimately get changed. It’s just an opening acknowledgement that something is going on that I need to understand.
A recent engagement is an excellent example of this. On the face of it, I’m helping to build a process to guide to help my client define how to deliver solutions to their clients. If we only define this by deliverables, it’s just another process guideline with just another companion workshop. The underlying purpose of this process, however, is to transform how the organization thinks about their work and their relationship with their clients. It’s a fascinating and fun gig, and a challenging one, and I’m enjoying it enormously.
One of the early work products was figuring out how to represent the process model in a way that was simple, visual and meaningful. Over the course of several weeks, that resulted in at least six substantial revisions. And until the model was developed, the rest of the deliverable wasn’t getting produced. It was the structure that everything else depended upon. Getting the model right was essential, but the longer that it went and the more it got revised, the more pressing became my overall deadline.
It would have been easy to have been frustrated, to be stressed and to express impatience. I could have just forced closure on the conversation and decreed that there would be no more changes. None of that would have been productive or useful.
What I did instead was to suspend my impatience and my anxiety and focus on what was being said. In doing so, I would often respond to feedback with a reminder of the underlying principles guiding our deliverable. I would check in on whether the principles were changing, or whether we were evolving our interpretation of those principles. I would explain to them the thinking behind why I made the choices that I had made. I would relate that thinking to previous conversations we had held. I would check in on whether my interpretation of the conversations were valid. I would highlight where I heard people saying different things or implying different conclusions or actions.
In other words, I was constantly challenging the information I was hearing. But this challenge wasn’t defensive or hostile. It was constructive, and focussed on making sure that I understood them, that they understood each other and that they understood what I had done and why. Where issues still remained, we figured out what they were, what had to change and what those changes meant. I would take the resulting feedback away with me, make the corresponding updates and we would try again.
Egos are wonderful, in that they provide us with the drive to get out of bed in the morning. They give us the confidence to do what we do, to make the choices we make and to stand behind the work that we produce. Opinions are important as well, in staking out a position and perspective for the work that we are doing. But feedback is what helps us to understand how others relate to what we have produced. It’s what tells us that there is something that is going on that we need to understand. But if we are really going to appreciate what we are hearing, and to learn from it, we need to help our egos to get out of the way.