Slow feedback?

Feedback is king these days. Wherever you go online, the pressure is on to pass judgement: Was this site useful? How do you rate this article? Please take a minute to fill in our user experience survey. In the same vein, gamers are forever monitoring their progress on leader boards.

The hunger for feedback is also starting to reshape the workplace. Many younger employees now expect a running commentary on their performance. Not for them the old annual or semi-annual review: they want to know how you think they did in this morning’s presentation, and they want to know now. You can even buy special software to create a round-the-clock feedback loop for staff and clients.

Yet this begs an obvious question:Is being constantly ranked, rated and evaluated a good thing?

True, there is much to be said for knowing what your colleagues and boss think of your work and to hear this more often than once or twice a year. Input from a wide range of people can also enrich many decisions and projects a principle known as the “wisdom of crowds“.

But there are limits. Otherwise the wisdom of crowds can start to resemble groupthink.

We are social animals, after all, so we have a natural desire to fit in, to please our peers – to earn good feedback. Research into online behaviour suggests that other people’s opinions can narrow our horizons. When visiting a site where movies, books, etc are rated, users tend to click on the items with the highest rating first.

It’s like buying a song on iTunes: if there are multiple versions available, which do you listen to first? I know I always click on the one with the highest popularity ranking. I follow the herd, in other words.

This raises the possibility that too much feedback too fast can close down avenues of inquiry and pull us away from the fertile soil of serendipity.

It may also hamper our creativity. Some acts of creation are intensely private. You cannot orchestrate them by committee. A person has to sit alone with his doubts, fears, frustrations, dreams and demons untangling, parsing and processing these at his own pace.

Many creative triumphs have come from someone toiling away alone, free from the tyranny of other people’s judgements. James Joyce wrote Ulysses without a daily critique from his editors; Mozart composed his Requiem and piano sonatas without hourly feedback from his patrons; Picasso only unveiled his paintings to the world when they were finished.

Would these giants have produced the same imaginative breakthroughs, the same revolutions in thought, if they had worked with a constant drip-feed of other people’s feedback? I’m not so sure.

Surely the answer is to strike a balance. Feedback at the right speed: sometimes fast, sometimes slow and sometimes no feedback at all.

It goes without saying that any feedback on this post is more than welcome…