Feedback Etiquette And Empowering Your Team

By Mark Webster [10.03.19]

After more than a decade in AAA game development, billion-dollar franchises and award-winning titles, I am taking a beat to explore what else is out there. This has afforded me a moment to reflect on my journey and the things I've learned along the way. So, with time on my hands, I thought I would share some of the bits I've found most useful.

"This Sucks! Do This." or "Why We Need Feedback Etiquette" 

When it comes to the process of giving and receiving creative feedback, we tend to put the responsibility on the receiver to develop a tough skin and to not take remarks personally.

It's not that feedback is intentionally harsh or personal, but it can come across as such due to tight deadlines, personality type mixes, or a noble drive to bring out the best in people. It's understandable and the truth is that feedback is so valuable that obtaining it is worth the price of a suboptimal process. It is only through feedback that we can improve our designs and stretch our art beyond the limits of our own perspective.

That said, it's in the best interest of productivity and general human decency that everyone involved in the process work to ensure feedback is effective, respectful and empowering.

Why do we want feedback to empower? 

We want Creatives to invest their hearts and souls into bringing to life the vision of our projects. This is what makes designs sing and art transcendent.

It is incongruent then in one moment to encourage Creatives to bring out the treasures of their heart and then ask them to toughen up as we hit it with sticks.

So how do we navigate this delicate balance between honest feedback and creative expression while keeping everyone heading in the same direction?

Below are a couple techniques I've learned to help cultivate a positive creative culture throughout the often-challenging process of feedback.

Provoke Ownership. 

As the age-old adage goes, give a man to fish and he'll eat... teach a man to fish and he'll learn to clean and gut it himself.

The best feedback is that which inspires a Creative to take ownership over the issue, process or resulting deliverable.

This doesn't mean they should have free reign to do whatever they like, but rather they are involved in the feedback process to the point that many of the resulting action items are of their own devising.

The greater the sense of ownership a Creative has towards an idea, strategy or solution the more engaged they are to see it succeed.

Purposefully Communicate.

We as humans communicate seemingly incessantly. The words we speak, our tone of voice, even what we don't say can often say so much.

Ultimately all this communication is communicating something.

One way to improve the feedback process is to be aware of our unintentional communication and channel those towards a single, cohesive message.

What if it all goes wrong?

In a perfect world, feedback would always leave recipients feeling excited to improve their work, reaffirmed as the best person for this task, and fully supported.

Unfortunately, it doesn't always go so smoothly.

In fact, most of these techniques I learned by doing the exact opposite so often it felt normal. That is until the process would grind to a screeching halt. Those moments of breakdown and subsequent rebuilding taught me much of what it takes to foster a creative community.

The overall goal here is to intentionally work towards improving the experience and results of everyone involved.

In the meantime, I found proactively encouraging Creatives, while owning my mistakes would help to insulate the team from the potential negative effects as I learned how to deliver more empowering feedback.

Next Steps...

These techniques are based on my own experience; use what works, toss what doesn't, and share your own learnings in the comments below.

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