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Posts Tagged ‘feedback’

I love baseball. I love Aaron Sorkin. I love, at least since the magnificent The Tree of Life, Brad Pitt. So there were high expectations for my trip to see Moneyball last week. What a shame that it disappointed so much. It glided along well, with some sharp Sorkin-dialogue and a few great scenes, but it never really took off; and I was even tempted to look at my watch two-thirds of the way through. (How it gets 95% on Rotten Tomatoes I don’t know. I’ll blog about Rotten Tomatoes soon.)

But the central premise (based on a true story) is interesting. Baseball manager Billy Bean (Brad Pitt) is running a team that can’t afford to compete financially with the bigger teams. Every time one of his players proves himself, he gets offered a multi-million dollar contract by someone else and is gone at the beginning of the next season.

Bean notices that people tend to rate players on a limited number of obvious skills and characteristics – how many runs they score, how good their swing is, how fast and accurately they can pitch, etc.

But not many people are analysing the less obvious statistical data about what actually helps a team to win a single game, and to keep winning consistently over a season. It’s not, as it turns out, simply the showy stuff or the obvious stuff – hits and catches and home runs and strike-outs (or whatever – I’m not sure I understand it all); it’s a combination of much less interesting factors like whether someone can make it to first base or whether they can throw a ball from the outfield.

When you get a team of non-stars who, in combination, can do this boring stuff, they beat a team of all-stars. You just need to analyse systematically what actually works, and find people who can do this.

The moral, if there is one, is that we shouldn’t assume we know what works and what doesn’t – until we have done the statistical analysis. Yes, statistics can distort or even deceive, but if you ask the right questions, they can reveal what really makes something work. It’s too easy for us to think we know what works, to take for granted that our criteria for judging something properly are reliable and proven, when often we are just going on unfounded hunches and prejudices.

This is why I always prefer to do detailed written feedback sheets at the end of a course or programme. I’ve heard people say that they like to sit down with people and hear from them directly; and there is certainly something to be gained from talking and listening. But my experience is that in a group conversation, even when you ask everyone to speak, the conversation will still be dominated by the louder ones, or the ones who feel most strongly about the issue (positively or negatively); and as an organiser you will always be tempted to be influenced too much by those who speak with most conviction.

But when you give everyone a chance, in a quiet moment of written reflection, to say what they think in detail about how something has worked, you get a much better picture, and often a lot of surprises. How to get honest and helpful feedback from people is a great art. I’d like to know more about other ways of getting constructive feedback.

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Toy Story 3 is about to hit these shores, and the Economist’s Schumpeter wonders how the studio that created it can continue to be so successful.

Pixar has mastered the art of creativity, but how can this be sustained? They have two answers.

The first is that the company puts people before projects. Most Hollywood studios start by hunting down promising ideas and then hire creative teams to turn them into films. The projects dictate whom they hire. Pixar starts by bringing in creative people and then encourages them to generate ideas.

The second answer is to encourage people within the studio to interact and give constructive feedback to each other.

In most companies, people collaborate on specific projects, but pay little attention to what’s going on elsewhere in the business. Pixar, however, tries to foster a sense of collective responsibility among its 1,200 staff. Employees show unfinished work to one another in daily meetings, so get used to giving and receiving constructive criticism. And a small “brain trust” of top executives reviews films in the works.

Pixar got the inspiration for this system from a surprising place—Toyota and its method of “lean production”. For decades Toyota has solicited constant feedback from workers on its production lines to prevent flaws. Pixar wants to do the same with producing cartoon characters. This system of constant feedback is designed to bring problems to the surface before they mutate into crises, and to provide creative teams with a source of inspiration. Directors are not obliged to act on the feedback they receive from others, but when they do the results can be impressive. Peer review certainly lifted “Up”, a magical Pixar movie that became the studio’s highest-grossing picture at the box office after “Finding Nemo”. It helped produce the quirky storyline of an old man and a boy who fly to South America in a house supported by a bunch of balloons.

Pixar also obliges its teams to conduct formal post mortems once their films are complete. In lesser hands this might degenerate into a predictable Hollywood frenzy of backslapping and air-kissing. But Pixar demands that each review identify at least five things that did not go well in the film, as well as five that did.

Imagine what your community or workplace or family would be like if people were really free enough to give constructive criticism and suggestions to each other – in the right context. It takes a great deal of trust, and a certain self-confidence. You need to have enough security to know that your place in that community is valued and assured – both to give it without unkindness and to receive it without defensiveness.

I’m not saying that the seminary where I work is perfect, but we have a very useful system for reviewing the year. We meet for a morning or afternoon each June to look back over the year together. In groups of five we collect ideas about what the highlights of the year have been for us personally, about what things have worked well in the life of the community, and about what improvements we could make for next year.

We feed all these ideas back to the larger group, and if there are any common or controversial issues emerging we talk through them to get some idea of what people feel, and to note any practical suggestions.

You can’t act on everything, and at the end of the day the Rector and his team will need to make some executive decisions, but it is a great way of acknowledging together what is working and discerning how to move forward. At the very least it stops you getting stuck, or (even worse) undoing the good that might already be taking place.

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