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Getting useless feedback? It's your fault.

The four elements of effective asks

An illustrative image for this article
Original photo by Zach Miles

Have you been there? You ask for someone's thoughts on an idea, and you get crickets? Or something irrelevant which won't make your idea better?

Or the other person brings up issues of which you were entirely aware, but had chosen not to solve yet? Or you even got a general 👍 or "I don't like it" for a complex proposal which help you improve it?

Disappointing, right?

I'm sorry to say, but it may be your fault. The thing is, in this world there are things you can control and things you can't. The quality of the feedback you get is way more under your control than you may realize.

To understand that, let's switch sides.

Have you been asked, simply, "what do you think?"

If yes, unless you're pathologically confident of your own opinions, you probably had a ton of questions whiz by your head:

  • Well, about which part? This thing is so big!
  • And how polished is this idea? It doesn't seem like it's ready for prime time, but it has potential, but I don't want to offend anyone.
  • If I say this is good, will they launch this into the world tomorrow? I don't want that kind of responsibility.
  • If I don't answer today, which I stop their progress? I want to give this some thought, but I'm so busy today.
  • How attached are they to this part of the idea? I think it could be better, but don't want to say anything unless it's still subject to change.
  • Why do they think I'm capable of giving good feedback on this problem? I'm not an expert, maybe I can only help on a couple of small points.

I'm only writing this hypothetical situation and I'm sweating here.

You shouldn't do this to others.

And that's your path forward: empathy. Help them help you.

The quality of the feedback you get is limited by the quality of your ask.

If you can't make it clear what will help you, how on earth do you expect others to hit the bullseye of what you need? Sure, you may may be talking to feedback experts who can read between the lines and, through well-honed telepathy, will say exactly what you need to hear to improve your idea. But hey, that's unlikely – quite the opposite.

So how do you bypass clairvoyance (and massive anxiety-generation) and make it easier for them? There's key information you can provide which will always be necessary for great feedback: context, need, timing and format.

  • Context: where does this idea exist, as it relates to other projects or initiatives? What does the other person need to know to evaluate it? How far along in its evolution is it: is it a first pass or the result of months of blood, sweat and tears?
  • Need: what are you unsure about? Where do you need input? A great way to express this is in opposition to feedback you don't need:– decisions you've made, constraints you can't move, etc. It also includes what feedback you need from whom, since different folks have different areas of expertise and may be able to contribute in specific ways.
  • Timing: when do you need feedback? Can they take their time and thing deeply about it or do you need to make a decision as soon as possible? If there's a deadline, explain it. If you're not in a rush, take the pressure off.
  • Format: where and how do you need the feedback? Comments on a doc? Direct chat messages? Audio on Whatsapp? Give them space, but don't make them think too hard. Anticipate what's the most effective and convenient for them to get you the thoughts which, afterall, you asked for.

At first look this may seem overly structured, or even defensive. But it's quite liberating, as you open up the path for others to express their thoughts in a productive way. When you provide this level of guidance, you avoid the main pitfalls of unclear asks:

  • Feedback about things you know are broken, but haven't invested in fixing yet.
  • Feedback about things beyond your control or which can't be changed.
  • Feedback that is hard to parse or incorporate.
  • Feedback that is simply too late to act upon.
  • Ultimately, feedback that's not useful.

And all because you took the reins of the ask.

In the end, it's that simple: ask better.

PS: If you use Slack at work, here's a recipe to operationalize this:

  1. Create a channel called #input (or #feedback, or whatever)
  2. When you need feedback from people, post requests which cover the points above: context, need, timing and format.
  3. Do it a few times
  4. Watch in awe as not only you start to get much better feedback, but others start to follow your lead.