“In Conversation” is a series of interviews designed to extract tips on a wide range of topics from practitioners who do it every day.
An interview with:
Kyle Jacobson is a Senior Project Manager and Team Lead at Clique. As a multilingual professional, Kyle worked internationally in project management and market intelligence across industries. He holds a BA from Tufts University in psychology, as well as a Masters in international commerce from Korea University.
Brent Trotter is a Senior Content Strategist at Clique Studios. Brent joined the team after two years co-running an independent strategy and copywriting company, People and Words. Prior, he managed integrated marketing programs for big brands at Ogilvy. As a content strategist and copywriter, he helps clients tell their stories and bring their business strategy to life online.
Here, Jacobson and Trotter discuss how to best give and receive feedback.
The Role of Feedback and How to Create a Good Environment
What role does feedback play in the work that you do?
Jacobson: Feedback is incredibly important for what I do. As a team lead, I manage other project managers. And, as a project manager myself, I have to work closely with our internal team—our strategists, designers, and developers—and collaborate closely with our clients. Feedback is involved in every aspect of my role.
Trotter: It might sound weird, but feedback is one of my favorite parts of the whole process. It’s the only way that I can feel myself getting better.
If you just put stuff out into the world and people don’t react to it or send anything back, it’s hard to know that you’re improving.
How do you approach giving feedback? How do you prepare or get in the right mindset to give someone feedback?
Trotter: A lot of it depends on context. I try to frame feedback around the objective of what we’re trying to achieve. Grounding it in that common element—what we’ve all agreed is the purpose—helps feedback remain objective.
Jacobson: I agree. To give good feedback, you need to re-familiarize yourself with the problem, objectives, or goals. Whether internally or with a client, it’s important to frame everything with those goals and objectives in mind.
So, aligning on purpose and making sure you reference that as the point-of-truth in your feedback helps make it better. What else contributes to ensuring your feedback is “good” feedback?
Jacobson: I don’t mean to use a cliché with my answer, but what is the definition of feedback? I think “feedback” is so frequently used and casually tossed around.
Feedback is information to help someone make something better in reaction to some output—whether it’s a deliverable they’ve created or a behavior they have. The whole point is that feedback is supposed to be used as the basis for improvement. Feedback needs to be actionable. That’s key.
I also think it’s incredibly important to put yourself in the mindset of being respectful and empathetic, and trying to understand how the person receiving the feedback might be feeling. We all know and love Brené Brown. She talks about how important vulnerability is in a lot of things—one of those things being creativity.
Vulnerability is so essential to a company’s creative culture. It’s a key stepping stone to learning and growth and big ideas. When you give or receive feedback, you need to be vulnerable. You need to hear and accept what people are saying and fight against putting walls up and protecting yourself.
Besides vulnerability, what else is important in creating a good environment for feedback? Are there any other elements that need to be in place for feedback to happen in the way that it should?
Trotter: The relationship. That’s why I think it’s harder to get feedback for the first time from someone new, like a client. You don’t have that pre-existing relationship of trust built. But, as you keep working together, that relationship of trust builds and feedback gets a lot more fluid.
I think you also just have to be as honest as possible. If feedback doesn’t feel genuine, it’s not going to spark any kind of genuine change.
Delivering Constructive Feedback
Honest feedback is easy when something goes really well—it’s easy to honestly compliment someone. But, when you’re giving constructive feedback, how do you balance being honest but not overly critical? How do you balance honesty with empathy?
Trotter: This is what I think Kyle is really good at, so I’ll let him go first.
Jacobson: *laughs* Oh gosh, I hope so. I try to do this.
Feedback is particularly hard in the creative industry. A lot of work that we do is, in a lot of ways, art. When you create art, you’re making yourself vulnerable, and I never want anyone to feel like I don’t see value in what they’ve created.
One of my approaches is pairing constructive with positive. It’s always honest, because the last thing I want it to do is come across as pandering. I find something to recognize their effort, whether it’s strategy or the execution itself.
And I think it’s also important to critique the work or behavior, not the person. I focus on the specific issue at hand. It’s not about talent or trust in their skill and giving actionable advice on how they can improve.
Trotter: When I give constructive feedback, I try to open the door to workshopping around the problem. Framing it as, “this part isn’t working well, what can we—together—do to think about it differently? How can we make this work? Let’s tackle this together.”
What we do a lot at Clique is we make sure that whoever is receiving the feedback has a team—whether it’s another writer (in my case), or a cross-discipline project team member—to work through it with. It’s never anyone’s job alone to fix something.
Jacobson: Yeah, I think you hit on something big there. When we give feedback, in a project sense, there’s an aspect of group ownership over the work. Even when we’re giving feedback to one individual it’s with a mindset of, “hey, let’s talk about this together.” And that is huge. That’s very much who Clique is.
Trotter: I also use a method that my friend taught me. She worked as a teacher, so she’s constantly giving feedback to students. It’s called “glow and grow,” and it’s about emphasizing something that they’re doing well that they can double-down on and pairing it with something that they can improve upon. It’s just one way to make the work better. Add that to our discussion about workshopping solutions together, and it could be “Glow, Grow, and Guidance.” I just made that up, but I think those things are important.
Do you think this connects to how we receive feedback from clients too? Do you see a common thread there in the mindset of “let’s figure this out together?”
Jacobson: Yes. As a project manager, I facilitate a lot of that feedback from clients, and I always try to get them in that mindset too. It’s not just a cycle of back-and-forth. I try to get them to talk through their feedback and have a conversation around identifying what the problem really is, and then I take that back to our team and we figure out, based on our execution expertise, how to act on it.
How to Elicit Feedback from Clients, Receive Feedback, and Avoid Common Mistakes
How else do you facilitate good client feedback?
Jacobson: For me, it all starts with education. The truth is, a lot of clients, when they’re working with vendors, think about it a lot—when and how they can provide the best feedback to our team. They look for guidance on it, and it’s great because if you’re not effective at giving feedback, you might miss the mark again, and then be a lot less efficient in getting the work to the right place.
When I’m going through that education process, I encourage them to be as specific as possible, to consolidate the feedback, to be respectful, and to anchor it in the objective.
What other mistakes have you seen people make or you’ve made yourself surrounding feedback?
Trotter: Like Kyle just mentioned, specificity is a huge one. When feedback is vague, that leads to more questions—which can be great from a conversational point of view, but it can also take a lot of time or cause misinterpretations. Ideally, feedback should be as actionable as possible.
Jacobson: Trying to convey feedback through writing, for us that’s typically via email or Slack. It’s difficult to convey emotions when you’re being critical over text. You can inadvertently offend people. Getting it over video calls or in person is always the best.
Trotter: Consolidation is also big. If you have conflicting points of view, it’s tough to know what action to take.
Jacobson: Yeah, getting a client team to alignment is huge. With large client teams, it’s not always easy. People have different opinions. Sometimes, we play a role in that—almost mediating and helping them find a common thread of alignment.
We’ve talked about giving feedback a lot, but now I want to understand how you two approach receiving feedback. What have you found is the most helpful?
Jacobson: Well, I try to avoid it. Like “shhhhhh.” *laughs*
Trotter: Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose. *laughs*
I try to ask “why” and have the feedback anchored around a specific problem or objective so I can figure out how to fix it from different angles. And then, I try to adopt an amateur’s mindset. I can always get better from feedback, even if it’s better at understanding when feedback is not to be taken.
Jacobson: I love that way of putting it—having an amateur mindset. Having humility in receiving feedback is so important. I try to be open to the feedback and see it from a different perspective.
And, I also think it’s important to understand that feedback is really just people’s opinions. That means that sometimes, I might not accept or agree with it. I try to be respectful when that happens, but it will happen, and that’s okay.
Rejecting Feedback and Having “Push Back” Conversations
Both of you brought up that to a certain point, you’re allowed to reject feedback—how do you know when to do that and how do you do it?
Trotter: I think you’re allowed to reject any feedback that is subjective, that’s more personal taste and not rooted in the objective.
And as far as rejecting feedback goes, it’s really more about having a conversation. We want to understand why something isn’t addressing the problem. Oftentimes, it’s because we can do a better job educating the client on the reasoning behind our decisions.
Clarifying questions are a great way to respond to feedback you disagree with too. You’re letting them know that you heard the feedback, but also digging for that larger “why.” Sometimes you just hear something differently. They’ll be saying “we need to add another item to the navigation” and what they really mean is “we don’t think this pathway is represented enough on the page.” A follow up question can help you understand the problem versus the solution they’re proposing.
Jacobson: To a large degree, I think we take a very logical approach to receiving feedback. Our discovery process sets us up to align really well with the client team, so then, when we’re in feedback rounds, we can say “based on X, Y, and Z, which we agreed on, we shouldn’t do that.” The hope is that we can always go back to some conclusion that we arrived at—whether it’s research based or an alignment activity like a workshop.
Trotter: Sometimes it feels like we’re doing the clients a disservice if we don’t have those “push back” conversations. They hired us for our expertise, but they’re experts in their own respect, too. We need to have those conversations and make sure we’re tapping into both, not just defaulting to one group of opinions.
Any parting advice?
Jacobson: Feedback is something that I think comes naturally to some people but for others, it needs to be practiced. There’s a lot of value in learning about how to get better at it. It’s something that is really important not just as a manager, but as a creative agency, when we work closely with each other. We just want to reinforce those ideas of honesty, clear communication, and trust.
Other Resources on Feedback
- Engaged Feedback Checklist (PDF) | Brené Brown
- How to Give Designers Feedback They can Actually Use | Invisionapp
- How to Give Creative Feedback: 9 Tips for Constructive Criticism | Masterclass
- Pixar’s 7 Essential Steps to Giving Creative Feedback | Inc
- The Joy of Getting Feedback | Joe Hirsch, TEDxTarrytown