On the nature of feedback

Everyone wants to get a little attaboy/attagirl for their efforts every now and then. Some little acknowledgement from the boss/parent/spouse/kid that “hey, what you did there was pretty cool”.

But what if what you do, while certainly important, isn’t something that generates positive feedback as a matter of course?

I spent the bulk of my career in the automotive business designing parts that, if I did my job right, would pass completely unnoticed by 99.999% (the elusive “five nines”) of the end user customers. What did I do? I designed parts of the engine cooling system. “Oh, but Jim, that’s a very important part of the vehicle!” you say. Yes. Yes, it is (to quote Phineas of Phineas & Ferb). But it’s not something a customer writes the CEO of the car company to sing the praises of. I never once saw a letter breathlessly gushing about how great the water pump on the CEO’s old college fraternity brother’s new Bourgemobile was as he drove the wife up from Palm Springs to Las Vegas for the weekend.

That’s because nobody thinks about the water pump, or other bits of the cooling system, until everything goes horribly wrong, and they’re on the side of the I-15 about halfway up the hill from Baker, California, hood up, steam pouring out, and they’re hot, sweaty, stranded on the side of the road 12 miles away from a town whose biggest attraction is the World’s Tallest Thermometer and a restaurant and motel called the Bun Boy. And they know that the World’s Tallest Thermometer was displaying 119 degrees F when they went by. And they are most assuredly Not Happy At All.

Then they write the letter to the CEO. And eventually, the engineer sees it. Negative feedback all the way.

And that was something I sort of got used to: lack of feedback = good. Feedback = bad.

Flash forward a few years and I’m working for a supplier company (which has sadly mostly gone away due to all the bankruptcies — sadly because it was a fantastic place to work if you were an engineer and liked Applied Mad Science). And I’d brought in a prototype design in what had to be world-record time, going from CAD data to finished, machined, assembled, and tested pieces including multiple complex castings, in 19 days (for reference, the standard time to do such a thing was 45-60 days). Didn’t sleep much during that time, and neither did any of the rest of my team.

The parts were shipped to our customer on time. And they worked as promised. Better, even.

And the day after, I’m at my desk and the boss comes in and says “You did an outstanding job, Jim.” And he hands me a print of an e-mail from the customer who was amazed that we had pulled it off — the first part had gone on the first prototype engine and it fit exactly as it was supposed to. And the customer was very happy and wasn’t shy about telling us so.

And that was the first time in my engineering career that the end user – the customer, in this case the engineer at the customer company – had given me positive feedback.

Felt good. No, felt GREAT! And all I could think of was “I’m tired, I’m sore, but it was totally worth every bit of extra energy spent.”

How does this relate to the mission of 50 Dangerous Things and Tinkering School?

Feedback is a vital part of the process of learning. There’s the immediate and self-dispatching feedback we get for ourselves when something we’ve done worked, or didn’t work. But that external feedback from others – observers, people in positions of authority such as parents and instructors — is also important. I’ve seen it done right, and I’ve seen it done wrong. I’ve seen kids give their all — and maybe they came up a bit short of the ultimate, but they gave their everything all the same — and feeling that little rush we all get from knowing we put it all on the table, there wasn’t more to give — only to have a coach, parent, some other authority in their lives tear them apart. And all that was accomplished was undone by a word or two, and just that fast.

Okay, so the goal wasn’t met. The team got beat — they didn’t lose, they got beat. The deadline was missed. The rocket didn’t launch. But the effort was put out there. How can you give feedback that is building, not destroying? It’s really not that hard:

  • Acknowledge the effort.
  • Also acknowledge that the goal wasn’t met, but don’t be mean about it.
  • Ask questions: what went right? what went wrong? How can we fix those things that went wrong?
  • If the kid(s) are down on themselves, seed the conversation: “Well, this went well, right? Okay, that other bit fell off, but you know how to keep that from happening again, right?” ENGAGE them. Don’t dictate the outcome, just get them pointed the right way when they’re turned around and give them a little prod. Once the path is visible, boom! they’re off down the path.

I know some of this sounds like the rah-rah, no-kid-is-a-failure, self-esteem-is-everything stuff that I, for one, absolutely hate. Real self-worth comes from self-accomplishment. We as notional adults owe it to the following generations to set them up for accomplishment. If you do that, the other falls into place automagically. And even better, the kids grow up to be thinking, capable, skilled-at-self-directed-learning adults.

Which is, when you get right down to it, the point of the exercise.

I look back on my childhood, and the lessons that have stuck with me throughout the rest of my life involved me doing something. Building an engine. Fixing broken stuff. Figuring out the parts of algebra that had me stumped in Algebra 1 (I’d never gotten below an A in math before those Algebra 1 Bs) before Algebra 2 started the next year taught me more than just factoring polynomials — it taught me a methodology for problem-solving and learning I’ve used to this day. Yes, there were teachers who absolutely made a difference — but again, looking at it through the filter of hindsight, that difference was not at the lectern, but in setting a framework in place and then letting us, the students, figure it out ourselves. And yes, some of us were better at it than others. The very best teachers encouraged teamwork amongst the students to help pull the ones not-so-good at figuring it out ourselves up to a functional level.

And it again comes back to feedback. Using that tool to build instead of destroy: “C’mon, Pete, you can do it!” will get a much better result for everyone involved than “Pete, you idiot, you’ve ruined our chance to win!”. Maybe Pete will get all the way there this time. Maybe he won’t… but it won’t be because he gave up or quit trying, and the next time, Pete will try something just that little bit different that might just push him over the top.

I’m trying to tie this in to the 50 Dangerous Things, and to be honest, I don’t have a direct tie-in to anything specific, but only to the whole concept. Because what is more dangerous than encouraging independent thought and self-directed accomplishment these days?

Okay, I just went back and read through this post, and something else struck me: This kind of build-upon-it feedback is important to adults, in a business environment, too. When we’re working as a team here at Nameless Employer (there’s a clue in my first post here, but humor me a bit, would you?), what comes out of the team environment is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a really heady feeling, and it’s something that I still get that little charge out of.

Which gives me an idea for the next post: Why adults should keep that childlike sense of wonder.

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