A Little Feedback, Often

November 13, 20233 minutes to read


I learned how to balance a broomstick on my chin and to juggle when I was about 14. The best thing about knowing how to juggle is embarrassing my kids in front of their friends.

The trick to balancing something, is you’re not actually balancing it, rather you're pushing it back and forth. Continually sway the object back in a controlled manner, never letting it come to rest. Correcting balance is easier when you know which way the broomstick will lean next because you’re making it go that way. Be proactive, instead of reactive, to change. Imagine a Sealion balancing a ball on its nose. It's pushing the ball around rather than reacting to the ball tipping over.

Maintaining momentum also makes it physically easier to change direction than it is to overcome inertia. That's why baseball players always take a few steps during the pitch so they can switch direction easily when the ball is hit their way, and why pro cyclists attack from behind so they build momentum before the other rider can react.

Product Design has an analog to this in how often we change direction. Change usually happens in response to learning more about the problem and its constraints. Learning can come from feedback, conducting research, prototyping, A/B testing, or presenting your thesis. Every time we learn, we alter our trajectory a little bit.

Feedback is like a wave that has both frequency (how often you get new data), and amplitude (scope of the feedback). It's usually better to aim for a higher frequency of learning even if the scope is smaller because it's easier to react to, and control. It's just like balancing a ball on your nose is easier if the wobble is smaller.

Continual Feedback

The advantage of putting things out there before they are "ready" is the cost of change is usually much smaller. The effort or cost of adjusting to change grows exponentially the longer you wait, or the bigger the study / test / feedback cycle becomes.

Continual Feedback

People who've worked with me can attest to my bias for action. I am a proponent of sharing early and often, and I'm happy to walk the walk. I often run through embarrassing early drafts of my work with my peers, my leaders, and my team just to get out of my head with real feedback and practice. If you can't share something with a few people on your team, how can you share it with the whole world?

None of this is new. Agile, Lean, Shape Up, et al all build on the same foundational principle of "take smaller more stable steps." I just thought this metaphor of balance resonated with folx when I shared it. It helped them zoom out their perspective when navigating ambiguity.

One common counterargument that I hear is, "You can't iterate from a match to a lightbulb. You need to take a big swing." I like to remind those people about the Apollo program, the iPhone camera system, and Alex Honnold's Free Solo of El Cap. All of those successes came from iterative progress toward a goal. If you don't know what your goal is... well yeah go figure that out first.

Another caveat is if you collect low-quality feedback through sloppy methodology, or if you ignore good feedback, or if you can't tell good feedback from bad, then you're not learning at all. That's a different kind of problem.

On your next project, try to collect a little bit of feedback, a lot more often than you'd like, and let me know how it goes.

Ok. Here's a video of me juggling.