Feedback is crucial for learning and improving, but it’s rarely fun to be on the receiving end of it when it’s critical. This is particularly tricky when it comes to creative work, which requires direction that can build up ideas, rather than critiques that can tear it down. Research shows two things are critical: asking for broad feedback out of curiosity and offering feedback based on subjectivity. Importantly, managers need to understand that their opinions provide only potential trajectories a creative worker might try — not the “right” road to take.
Feedback is crucial for learning and improving, but it’s rarely fun to be on the receiving end of it when it’s critical. Many people have a negative reaction to feedback, especially feedback on their creative work. In a study of seven companies and 11,471 days of creative work, researchers found two striking patterns: First, getting feedback was incredibly rare, indicating that people seemed to avoid it; and second, when people did receive feedback, it generally left a negative emotional residue.
So what might good feedback for creative work look like? By “good feedback,” I mean feedback that creative workers actually want and that leads to changes that improve their creative output.
Identifying this requires understanding how creativity works. Creativity is the generation of an idea that is both useful and novel. Combining the two requires some care because novelty, by definition, is something unfamiliar to both the creator and anyone seeing the idea for the first time. As a result, early creative ideas can be fragile and dismissed as too new, weird, or unnecessary. New ideas need direction that can build them up, rather than critiques that can tear them down.
At the same time, creativity does require feedback. As much as we have mythologized creativity as the domain of an individual genius working alone, almost all creative processes used in organizations — design thinking, lean startup methodologies, agile development, and more — require getting feedback on early creative work. As a result, organizations need to provide effective feedback to cultivate creative ideas; it’s one of the ways for them to adapt to industry changes and competitive pressures. In other words, there’s a real need to understand how to give and receive feedback effectively in creative work.
Suffolk University’s Karyn Dossinger and I recently published research that gets at this question, focusing on a successful online company that crowdsources t-shirt designs from a large community of freelance designers. Their website hosts a forum where designers can ask for feedback on early design prototypes from their peers and then post updated designs based on the feedback they received. Looking across almost 2,000 feedback statements, we learned that two dynamics seem crucial: First, designers who were motivated to seek feedback out of curiosity, as opposed to simply improving their design, were able to attract more and higher quality feedback. Second, the peers providing critiques who recognized that feedback is a subjective opinion as opposed to an objective statement were more effective in enhancing the creativity of the final design. I’ll explain each below.
Asking for feedback out of curiosity. How we ask for feedback influences the scope and type of feedback we receive. Sometimes requests for feedback are overly narrow. For example, we found that some T-shirt designers asked for feedback about the color of a dinosaur they illustrated, their font choice, or the placement of a monkey working on a typewriter. There are often underlying reasons for asking a specific question like this, including limiting a coworker from attacking your work or showcasing something you’re proud of (in which case you really don’t want feedback — you want admiration).
This approach, however, limits the potential of creative work, because it doesn’t allow for the possibility of novelty. Changing one color, for example, may not push the boundaries to create something that peers and potential customers haven’t seen before.
Our research showed that highly curious individuals asked extremely open questions like “What do you think?” or “Where could I go next with this?” These designers received significantly more feedback than those asking narrow questions, and their final designs received higher scores. We believe this is because, by leading with curiosity, the feedback seeker is signaling they’re open to ideas beyond their own. In contrast, narrow questions signal that the feedback seeker already has a set of ideas and wants validation that those ideas are correct. In this way, creative work is like dancing: Questions born out of curiosity signal that the creative worker is looking for a dance partner.
Provide feedback based on subjectivity. If asking questions is like asking for a dance partner, then providing feedback is being the type of dance partner someone would actually want to dance with. A huge part of creativity is this ability to get your audience to agree that what you’re doing feels new and surprising to them. And just as asking open questions honors the fact that creativity requires novelty, providing feedback needs to honor that same assumption. It needs to provide space for something new, something that might not be anticipated by either party, to emerge.
When providing feedback to creative workers, signal that your opinion is exactly that: an opinion. This seems deceptively easy. Doing it requires providing feedback that includes first-person pronouns: I, me, and my. “I see…” or “What strikes me is that…” or “My opinion is…” Many managers find this difficult, because they have been trained to solve concrete problems, not to consider what something really means. Providing feedback on creative work means setting aside the managerial impulse to plan and retain control. Doing so allows managers to understand that their opinions provide potential trajectories a creative worker might try — not the “right” road to take.
Feedback is tricky, and it’s even trickier for creative work. But asking for feedback out of curiosity and providing feedback based on subjectivity can improve both the process and the outcomes.