Yesterday I read a disturbing article in The New York Times about cultural change at Twitter. In a nutshell, Twitter brought in an executive to “revamp Twitter’s design team and make it more diverse.” Part of his process: asking employees “to go around the room, complimenting and critiquing one another” in a two-hour meeting. The Times reports that several attendees cried. Shocker.
What IS actually shocking is that Twitter has defended these tactics and even promoted this guy to Chief Design Officer. “This is actually a Twitter culture change that we’ve been trying to drive,” the head of human resources was quoted by the Times as saying. Apparently, the culture at Twitter was too nice — and that was a problem. “The company had long been slow to build products, and under pressure from investors and users, executives landed on a diagnosis: Twitter’s collaborative environment had calcified, making workers reluctant to criticize one another.” So, getting them to criticize each other was the solution???
I have questions.
First: How is making people cry supposed to increase diversity? (I don’t really expect an answer to that.)
Second: How is making people cry supposed to improve the quality of design work? (Answer: It doesn’t.)
Two of my former employers had VERY different approaches to “criticism.” (Keep reading to see why I have that word in quotes.) As a result, I have strong opinions about what type of feedback works — and what doesn’t — for creating great ideas, content, products, services, and experiences.
One employer was a traditional ad agency where the “creatives” were king. (Yes, most of them were men. And don’t get me started on the destructive nature of the “creative” job title — I’ve got a rant about that, which I’ll save for another day.) I remember one specific meeting where I was brought into to review a website design. It was honestly the most beautiful set of mockups I had ever seen. But the “creative” who designed it had decided that it would be a good idea to not only change the location of the navigation on each and every page, but also to switch up which elements appeared in each navigation menu. I explained why this would be difficult for users to understand, and our meeting ended. I thought everything was fine, but later that day I got called into my boss’s office. Apparently the “creative” had complained to his boss, who talked to my boss, who promptly told me to drop it. That was the day I knew I had to leave.
Part of the reason my approach clashed so severely with the ad agency’s don’t-piss-off-the-creatives culture is that I had just spent four years at Forrester Research. Forrester had, especially in my first stint there, a strong culture of critique.
Note that critique — a.k.a. constructive feedback — is very different from criticism. Criticism is “You don’t make good decisions” or “You’re dumb for moving the navigation menu around on every single page.” Critique is “Moving the navigation on every page is going to be confusing for users because it’s not the established standard.” Criticism beats up the person. Critique beats up the idea.
Here’s why that’s important: Even super smart, super talented people have bad ideas. Effective organizations know how to discard the bad ideas and hone the good ones, while not damaging the people behind them.
At Forrester, seasoned editors regularly gave me blunt (but kind and respectful) feedback on my research reports. For “big idea” reports — those that introduced a new idea or framework — veteran analysts would lend their time to poke holes and spur discussions about the implications of the idea on various industries or disciplines. Groups of research directors would attend keynoters’ dry runs and provide feedback on slides and messaging. I loved every minute of it. And my work was far better as a result.
I affectionately referred to my favorite type of critique as “Calling out the laziness.” Inevitably, there would be some complex idea or anecdote that I was trying to communicate. I’d have a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t quite doing it justice — but was hoping that I had, so I could save myself some extra work. And every single time, my editor would call me out with a question or comment. It’s important to note that no one ever called me lazy — that was my own label. My editors just pointed out that I hadn’t made myself clear. Admittedly, my immediate reaction was usually mild annoyance. “Ugh! I don’t want to take the time fix that.” But that fleeting emotion quickly gave way to acceptance. “Yup, they’re right. I was just being lazy. It’s going to be so much better now.”
One of my favorite examples of critique came during my second stint at Forrester. Harley Manning and I were putting together our book proposal for Outside In. In the section with my bio, our excellent editor Josh Bernoff commented with three words: “Not impressive enough.” I literally laughed out loud when I saw this because I KNEW Josh wasn’t telling me my background wasn’t impressive. He simply wanted me to amp up the language I was using to explain my background. And I did. 🙂
Excellent work doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Even the world’s most talented makers — like authors, blockbuster movie directors, and chefs — have teams who provide substantial feedback.
So, if you’re looking to shift your corporate culture with the goal of producing better ideas, content, products, services, and experiences, here’s my advice: Critique your colleagues’ work until the cows come home. But don’t critique them.
Beat up ideas, not people.
If you need help running an effective critique, please get in touch.