Effective feedback: Thirty Percent Vs Ninety Percent

When I was first getting started as an entrepreneur, co-founding a business with someone who I had relatively recently met, I’d consistently run into a challenge getting feedback.  I’d have built a prototype, have some ideas for what we could do with it, and take it to my cofounder to show it to her and ask her thoughts.  We’d almost inevitably get bogged down looking at and talking about details that had nothing to do with the prototype itself – this font isn’t right, why is this other part of the site interacting with it this way, etc.

This went on for quite a while, and was frustrating to both of us.  I’d just want some direction on the single item I was working on, and she wanted to clean up and polish all of the other things around it.  Alternatively, sometimes I’d have something that was just about ready to run and the conversation would veer into fundamental directional questions.  Until one day, we stumbled on the concept of thirty percent feedback vs ninety percent feedback, which I believe I first found on the 42 floors blog.

The basic idea is this – Whenever you’re asking for feedback, make clear if you’re closer to 30% finished or 90% finished.  The feedback you’ll get will be wildly different.

Thirty Percent Feedback

Thirty percent feedback is strategic, it is big picture… it answers the question ‘Am I heading the right direction?’  and because it is early enough that there is time to course correct, it has room for divergent thinking, opening up the problem domain and exploring radically different options.

Because it is early in the process, it glosses over fine details and polish, knowing those will be addressed later.  Thirty percent feedback is possibly the most difficult to ask for, because it involves putting yourself out there with work that you know is not ready, is not polished, but it is also often the most helpful feedback to get.  It can help you sidestep a lot of wasted effort, and give you truly powerful strategic insights.

Ninety Percent Feedback

Ninety percent feedback is more tactical, it is detail oriented, and it tries to catch every little issue so that nothing makes it out into production.  This is the time for closing things down, tweaking final copy, and making everything pixel perfect.

You Need Both

The place I think this is the most important is in dealing with stakeholders.  The most painful thing in the world is when you think you’re at 90% complete, you go to a stakeholder, and they’re giving you massive directional changes.  Suddenly you’re back at square one, and you’ve wasted a ton of time and energy polishing something that doesn’t end up getting used.  This is a natural consequence of skipping your 30 percent feedback checkin.

Almost as painful is going to someone for 30% feedback and having them get all caught up in the details, not able to step back and take a look at the bigger picture, and acting as if you’re delivering shoddy work.  Its not shoddy, its just only 30% finished!

So what I’ve learned to do is engage both – you engage all of your stakeholders early and often in the process, as soon as you have any sort of idea or direction, but you make clear the stage you’re at and what type of feedback you’re looking for.  That way, by the time you get to the 90% feedback not only do you have much more high quality work, but they’ve been coming along for the ride the whole time.


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Moving From Overwhelm to Breakthrough

Not long ago, I had a meeting with my boss, who also happens to be one of my mentors, and after some other discussion asked him one of my favorite open-ended questions:

What should I be thinking about that I’m not yet?

After a few moments of thought, he started drawing a diagram that I’ve roughly recreated below:

work and impact

He highlighted that I, and many of our team, are operating in the middle area on this graph.  We’re working hard, we’re efficient, and we’re getting a lot done.  We feel like we’re just barely keeping up, but we are keeping up and we’re making serious progress.  He also pointed out that some of our team members who’ve struggled, and sometimes left, got stuck in the left hand side of the graph, feeling like they were pouring work in and never able to get ahead.

Then he challenged me.

I want you to figure out how to get you and everyone on your team over into the right side of this graph.

Moving from Holding On to Breaking Through

Operating on the right side of the graph means getting more impact for less effort.  It means optimizing not just for efficiency but for effectiveness.  It means rethinking goals and tasks to create radically different strategies.  Lets take a look at what this can mean in different areas.

Breakthroughs in Software Engineering

Breaking through in engineering means finding ways of overcoming the ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome and leveraging existing tools and libraries.  It means boiling things down to the root of the problem and creating radically less code to solve the same number of problems.  It means learning and using the most efficient frameworks and investing time and energy in your tooling.  It means automating your tests, streamlining your deploys, and biasing every project towards creating something that can be reused and repurposed.

Breakthroughs in Customer Support

Breaking through in customer support means finding ways to move from the 1 plus 1 plus 1 model of supporting customers to a leveraged and scalable one.  It means taking problems that come up over and over again and writing documentation that clearly resolves them.  It means taking a set of individual customers and creating a place where they can converse, create community, and help solve each others problems.

Breakthroughs in Marketing

Breaking through in marketing means turning your best customers into your best evangelists. It means empowering others to write your content, spread your message, and bring new people into the fold.  It means finding creative ways to connect and reuse your content and materials across multiple mediums and locations.  It is creating self-perpetuating material that engage people, causing them to interact and create new material that further engages people and spins up the marketing flywheel.

Breakthroughs in Management

Breaking through in management is successfully engaging in this exercise with each of your team members.  It is moving away from making sure tasks get done and moving towards reimagining productivity and effectiveness.  Away from keeping checklists and towards teaching and mentoring.  In essence, away from management and towards leadership of empowered team members that self-manage.

Where else can we break through?

As I’m mulling on this more and more, I find myself wondering how I can apply this perspective to other parts of my life.  What does breakthrough parenting look like?  I live my parenting life somewhere between the left and middle of this spectrum, more often on the left.  What does breakthrough fitness look like?  Breakthrough relationships?

Leave me a comment, I’d love to engage on these ideas.

7 Tricks to Kickstart Your Creativity

Kickstarting your Creativity

I haven’t always been good at being creative.  In fact, my business partner used to complain that I would “say no to everything” but never come up with any alternative proposals.  It turns out the problem was that I didn’t realize that there were two “modes” of thinking, what I call execution mode and creativity mode, and that I needed to deliberately swap between them.

In execution mode, you focus on the details of how to make something work.  What is going to get you from point A (where you are) to point B (a well defined location) in the shortest possible time with the least amount of risk.  This mode of thinking is absolutely required in engineering, finance, operations, and other detail-oriented lines of work.  The problem is that it is absolutely deadly when it comes to creativity, shutting ideas down before they even have time to germinate.

On the flip side is creativity mode.  In this mode, anything goes.  You open yourself to possibility without concern about details.  Anything is possible, or rather, the time for worrying about what is possible is sometime later.  This is the mode where all great ideas, new innovations, and creative possibilities come from.  The important thing to know is that you can’t be in both modes simultaneously.  I had to learn to deliberately swap myself from execution mode into creativity mode.

Here are 7 tricks that I use to do exactly that.

7.  Go for a run (or a walk)

This is probably the first thing in my toolbox whenever I get stuck on something.  There’s something about engaging in physical exercise that lets your brain “unlock” from whatever it is stuck on.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been struggling to come up with a solution for a tricky problem or a creative alternative to a sticky situation, gone for a run, and then had the solution magically come to me in the shower afterwards.

6.  Play word games

Sometimes silliness is just the thing to knock me out of execution mode and into creativity mode.  With this tool I’ll start playing around with the exact words of the problem, trying to create puns with them and randomly connect other things that “sound” similar even knowing they have nothing in common.  Having to come up with a blog post might morph into a post in the ground, into a pole, and before you know it I’m doing research on the fitness impacts of pole dancing as compared to a gym membership. 😛

5.  Play “Yes And”

This one borrows from Improv Theatre, and is a technique to be used in a group or with a partner.  The idea is that you disallow yourself from rejecting anything at all, but in response to any idea you have to respond with “Yes and” with another idea that builds on it.  This keeps ideas flowing freely, each building on the other, without ever shutting down your creativity with rejection.

4.  Make a Mind Map

I use Mind Maps particularly when I’m trying to figure out content for a post or a speech about a particular subject.  They’re a great tool for getting out all of the details that are lurking around in different corners of your mind, and then connecting them in interesting and novel ways.

3.  Try a beer-storm

Probably one of the most fun things to do as a group.  If you’ve got a tricky problem in need of a creative solution, get your team together with a white board and a round of beer.  Alcohol has a way of reducing the barriers inherent in our minds, creating a free flow of ideas.  Don’t worry about ranging into the inappropriate; take a picture when you’re done and trim away the worst the next day.

2.  Meditate

Meditation is one of the areas of my life that I wish I was better at.  I’ve tried to keep a regular meditation practice a few times, and keep falling out of it, but when I’m able to it is incredible effective at helping me approach the world with curiosity and humor, which in turn makes creativity flow.

1.  Write a morning journal

Dreams can be bizarre, disoriented, and unrealistic, but that is because they are unfiltered creativity straight from our subconscious.  Writing the moment you wake up in the morning without worrying about what it is you capture on the page is a great way to tap into that subconscious and supercharge your creativity.


What About You?

What tricks or tools do you use to take your creativity to the next level?  Tell me about them in the comments!