Thirty Percent Feedback

2014-02-26 by Jason Freedman
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Constructive-Criticism-cartoon

I remember showing school essays to my dad growing up. He’s a really good writer and so getting his feedback before I turned a paper in usually helped me make some improvements.  But whenever I’d watch him reading over the pages, I would secretly be hoping he’d read it and say that everything is perfect.  I obviously thought it was already perfect, otherwise I wouldn’t have shown it to him.

The truth is I didn’t really want any critical feedback.  As a teenager trying to finish his homework, my only goal was to do the minimal amount of effort necessary to get a good grade and be done with it.

It was such a harmful way to think.  And I’ve noticed that I have let it carry into my startup life as well.  Often times, when I seek feedback on a project, it’s not actually constructive feedback that I want; it’s simply approval.  I want a pat on the back and a “job well done.”  Of course, that doesn’t push me to work harder.  It doesn’t provide me new perspectives.  And it certainly doesn’t yield the best product.

I’ve noticed that most people have difficulty seeking constructive feedback.  If you’re pretty good you can at least accept constructive feedback, but rarely will you actively seek it out.  Often times you’ll still be plagued by that teenage desire to simply seek approval.

But when you meet someone who is hungry for tough feedback, the effect is powerful.  You can just tell that they’re going to be successful because they are so hungry for information.  Their pace of learning is so much quicker than anyone else who toils alone.  They don’t take criticism of their work personally, and because of this, they exude a deep sense of confidence.  I’m always inspired when I see that in its purest form.

 

***

 

But, if you’re someone that struggles with seeking out tough feedback here’s a little trick we use at 42Floors.

We call it Thirty Percent Feedback.  It’s a trick I learned from our investor, Seth Lieberman.  It came about because I once asked him for feedback on a product mockup, and he asked if I felt like I was ninety percent done or thirty percent done. If I was ninety percent done, he would try to correct me on every little detail possible because otherwise a typo might make it into production. But if I had told him I was only thirty percent done, he would gloss over the tiny mistakes, knowing that I would correct them later.  He would engage in broader conversations about what the product should be.

In this particular case, I was indeed ninety percent done and so we debated a few details, I got my pat on the back, and I moved on.

As he was leaving, he said:

“Next time come to me when you’re only thirty percent done and I’ll give you thirty percent feedback.”

So a few months later on a different project, I came to him with some questions on a project that was still in its early stages and we wrestled with the direction together.  I didn’t polish anything and he made sure not to critique things he knew I would fix later.  It was really freeing. I knew I wasn’t putting my best foot forward and he didn’t care.  He was able to help me shift course without the sunk cost of throwing away a ton of work.  Really awesome.

***

 

We try to do a Thirty Percent Feedback sessions whenever we can  in our office.  It’s not easy though. Most people I find still want to wait until they’re ninety percent done.  But that’s rarely optimal and usually involves painful rewrites.

If you want to get your team on board with Thirty Percent Feedback, it won’t be easy.  Here are a few suggestions to help you get there:

 

How to Build 30 Percent Feedback into the Culture of Your Startup

 

 

Lead by example

Duh.

Don’t worry about anything else below if you can’t there.

Ask for it explicitly

You have to be deliberate because you’re fighting against an innate fear most people have: fear of rejection.   Some of your best people are accustomed to being good at everything they do, so they may be the toughest to get on board.

You have to explicitly ask people to be on board with this concept.

 

Reward People with great feedback

Whenever someone comes to you for early feedback you have to reward it.  If, even just once, you reject someone’s draft because it’s not polished enough for you, you’ll teach everyone else in the organization to always be 100% done before approaching you.

Execs at big companies may want everything perfect before it gets to them, but that’s no way to run a startup.

Praise Speed

When someone takes way too long to get a first draft out because they’re being perfectionists and you praise them for their quality craftsmanship, it teaches everyone to do the same.  You should, instead, praise people that move incredibly fast.  We always strive for one week.  Even for the most complex projects, we try to see what can come out as a first draft within one week.  From that point on, they can get feedback and start iterating.

 

Demo Regularly

Set up the company for everyone to demo at your weekly meetings, regardless of what stage their project is in.  It’s more of a show us whatever you have.  PG would do this to us at YC, making us demo every week.  It was both daunting and humbling.  But once we got used to it, we actually got addicted to the immediate feedback.  That’s the culture you want.

 

 

One final note.  Every once in awhile you’ll still have to give someone  tough feedback when they thought they were 90% or 100% done.  It always feel shitty to have throw away work.  But hopefully with this system, it will happen much less.  And the result will not only be better products, but happier people.

 

 

Discuss on Hacker News.

 

About Jason Freedman

Entrepreneur, Co-Founder at 42Floors, Co-Founder at FlightCaster, YC-alum, and a Tuck MBA

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  • http://startuplift.com/ Pranaya from StartUpLift

    Hi Jason,

    Great post. Especially the first part resonated very well with me because – my startup, StartUpLift.com – specializes on providing crowdsourced feedback to startups. One of the features that we offer to startups is that they can reject any feedback / feedback provider at no cost to them. It’s interesting to note that more than 65% of the rejection happens when when they get some sort of negative feedback, which in fact is a disguised constructive criticism.

  • Yakub Jalal

    Hey Jason. Good technique! Thank you. (btw – It’s “gloss over”, not “glaze over”. “Glaze over” is what your eyes do when you are reading too much tedious detail.)

    • http://humbledmba.com/ Jason Freedman

      Thanks. Fixed.

      • Frank Douglas

        Jason, he was incorrect. It was glaze over. To gloss over is to hide a mistake.

  • Ben

    I think “Lead by example” is almost sufficient, but not necessary. A person will listen to a coach give criticism, even if the coach isn’t someone you’d ever see take criticism himself.

    The more general case, I’d say, is that it must be someone you personally respect. It could be because they lead by example. Or it could be because they’re in the trenches with you. Or it could be because they hold a position that you respect, or have particular experience you value.

    (When General Patton told you something, you took it seriously, even though pretty much nobody ever saw anyone — even Eisenhower! — successfully give Patton advice about anything.)

    On the other hand, I’ve worked with people who have asked for feedback, but for various reasons had not gained my personal respect, and I would not bother asking for feedback from them.

  • Craig J Willis

    Wow! I love this article and immediately gave me a new perspective on our own product we’re working on. I’m now thinking about calling it the 30% Tool! We developed it out of our own experiences in trying to get everyone in the team to reach a shared understanding of the product vision.

    We would all discuss and even document the vision in some way. But nobody really saw it as one tangible thing until it was finally built in prototype. This was normally pretty far down the road, and I’d argue was the 90% stage. Rarely do I see teams with the luxury of tearing up the prototype and starting from scratch as much as we’d all like to. So what would happen is that various sacrifices had to be made as the vision we all thought we shared turned out to have been interpreted slightly differently.

    Mockups have come a long way to help address that challenge, which tends to be more acute in teams that are not 100% familiar with each other. But I’d argue it was still only 50-60% of the way. Now I’m thinking our product http://www.the-skore.com gives you the chance to do a 30% feedback on the product and discuss its direction in a way that everyone can see.

    Thanks again for the inspiration and I’d love some feedback on our own product, as much as I hate to hear any! :)

  • Anthony

    Cheers Jason, great advice!

  • Steven Blake

    Thanks for this, it’s something that had never crossed my mind yet is both valuable and practical and I’m sure I will find a use for it. The “lead by example” applies to every aspect of the project such as if you want others to be excited by it you need to be excited. This applies to being calm or logical or meticulous etc.. In my own line of work I use it to quickly get people into trance by putting myself into trance and as they join in by the power of rapport I break out and then help them go deeper. It’s referred to as “going there first”!

  • http://www.startupmanagement.org/ William Mougayar

    Very smart article. I kind of did this subconsciously with the startups I come across, but you’ve crystallized it more succinctly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/terrence.a.davis1 Terrence Andrew Davis

    With giving God feedback? Early, I was hyperhonest. I was so honest, I was confessing sins I didn’t even do. I said, “I like flowers but not slugs.” God was hurt. Wait, I actually like slugs. Why did I say I didn’t like them? It turns-out you should love God like your wife and never say “You’re fat.”

    • Judas

      Is God fat?!

  • Lynn

    Such a great wait of thinking about the development process. Love it.

  • Rick Barnich

    Constructive criticism is like Cod Liver Oil. You know it’s good for you, but hard to take.

  • http://allisonpollard.squarespace.com/ Allison Pollard

    I love the idea of getting “30% feedback!” A coworker of mine showed me a presentation that he thought was 95% done, and it was way off target–I gave him the feedback, and it hurt both of us to know that he’d put a lot of effort into a presentation that couldn’t be used.

  • Evan Crompton

    Thanks for the excellent post, I will use this…

  • harishvc

    You got me thinking. Good one.

  • http://thebrokerlist.com/ Customer Service

    Glad to find your blog. Love to learn! Thanks for sharing.