First, a big giant THANK YOU, high five and bear hug to all of you who filled out THE WORLD FEEDBACK SURVEY
! I have been reading your stories and they are truly heartfelt. Those of you who are interested in being interviewed, I'll be responding, so hang tight. But for now, big ugly cry thank you for participating in this adventure. If you missed the announcement last week, head here
to learn more.
As Part Two of my Feedback + Critique discussion, I’m excited to share my project on feedback for the Human-Centered Systems Thinking course I completed last month. For those of you who have asked, the course is offered through IDEO University. I have completed two of their courses, and I’m signed up for 2 more, and be warned, their courses are mildly addictive! The Human-Centered Systems Thinking course served as an introduction to systems thinking, which as I mentioned in Part One, is about solving organizational challenges by focusing on the connections and relationships between different groups of people within a system and how these relationships and connections facilitate and impede organizational goals and wellbeing.
Systems for our purposes are not only organizations, but also families, clubs, schools, neighborhoods, cities, countries, and even the course itself was a system. If you remember my newsletter focused on groups, systems are what we sometimes refer to as groups. And usually, these groups of people share a common goal.
For brevity, I’ve broken my project into two segments. Part two this week and part three next.
As a preliminary exploration into my research on feedback and the important role it plays in healthy systems function, I focused my project on an aspect of feedback within a system that I know quite well. Fine arts critiques.
Side note: I’m consistently surprised when approaching systems or any other organizational challenge just how seldom artists are considered as a data point. It has been my experience that artists know a lot about many different things. Commonly, professional artists find themselves playing a multitude of roles within different systems, often simultaneously. All while mastering making use of feedback given and providing meaningful feedback to others. Artists are a wealth of information. In my search for answers, I always ask artists first.
Systems thinking often begins with crafting what is known as a How Might We statement. This acts as an entry point into how the complex problem being called to solve is approached. How Might We statements usually have many iterations. This project had about 4 versions of How Might We statements, concluding in:
How might we move from a system where the feedback process is one of fear and confusion to a system that supports a feedback process of clarity and utility while maintaining integrity?
In service of this How Might We statement I imagined that the most desirable outcome from a classroom critique at a fine arts school, Safe + Useful. As I discussed in Part One, I defined a quadrant of values that impact the quality of the critique. I will share them again below:
Safe + Useful
Safe + Useless
Unsafe + Useful
Unsafe + Useless
Using commonly accepted definitions for the values above, let’s dive into what each quadrant means.
Here are the definitions so we are all on the same page.
Free from harm or risk. Unhurt. Secure from threat of danger, harm, or loss.
Dangerous. Able or likely to cause harm or damage.
Able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways. Of a valuable or productive kind
Not fulfilling or not expected to achieve the intended purpose or desired outcome.
1. Safe + Useful. This is the golden nugget of the critique process. Ideas about the artist’s work are presented in a way that feels safe. Feedback centers on the work and not the artist as a person. Feedback is easy to understand and is presented alongside ideas for improvement. The ideas shared are useful because they are honest. They do not mislead the artist to believe that the work is a success if it isn’t, that their skill level is beyond where it actually is, and that the work is aligned with their intention if it isn’t. All of these useful elements are provided in a safe way. Safe does not mean dishonest, or untrue. It means that in the case of an art critique, the feedback does not arrive as a personal attack or a simple celebration of the work without answering the artist’s questions about the work and supporting the progress of the artist professionally. As we will discuss below, safe feedback can also be useless.
2. Safe + Useless. Safe and useless critiques are the worst and can feel just as empty and confusing as Unsafe + Useless critiques. This occurs when the feedback is free from personal attacks and is delivered in an appropriate and easy-to-understand manner, but lacks any significant ideas toward the progress of the student as an artist. This doesn’t mean that the work cannot be extremely successful or finished as is, but in the case of the work being great, in order for that feedback to be useful, it needs to be specific. Why is the work great? What area of the work is a success and why? How did the artist harness their skill and intention to make the work successful? To simply say the work is great, or wonderful, or successful while it might feel good, is also super useless.
3. Unsafe + Useful. This one is tricky and definitely takes some experience to make use of. Sometimes feedback can be presented in an unsafe manner, but when distilled for meaning is actually useful. I’ll illustrate with a personal example. When I was in art school I had a painting instructor tell me during a critique that he was frustrated by my stubbornness and lack of understanding in that I just should not paint at all. “Why do you keep trying, Lisa? Just stop.” So that feels pretty unsafe, right? And to be honest, had I not been through that machine of unsafe critiques about a million times in my art school career I do not think I would have been able to make use of it. Toward the end of the dreadful endurance of insults, the instructor did manage to provide something that was ultimately helpful, albeit very difficult to distill from the madness. He added that if I was going to insist on providing the world the misery of my paintings then at least make them smaller so they were harder to see. Yeah, that really happened. Ha! Where this information became useful is that I was actually able to get past the personal hurt of the feedback and take his suggestion of painting on a smaller scale. And wouldn’t ya know, it worked. Really, really well. So well that in my next critique my classmates commented on how much my work had improved on a smaller scale. Something clicked by working small. Who knew it was all about the scale? Super useful feedback that actually informed my trajectory as an artist from that point forward. Unfortunately, it was delivered in an unsafe wrapping.
4. Unsafe + Useless. This is the worst of the worst. In this circumstance, there is not much to be gained or distilled from the feedback. It is delivered within a personal attack and is so misinformed there is little that can be learned. This is the kind of feedback that makes you wonder who hurt the person who is so very much trying to hurt you. And this happens and is unfortunate. Many times in fine arts class critiques this type of feedback goes on without any instructor intervention. Believe it or not, this type of feedback is viewed as part of the learning process. If you can get through this and show up to class the next day, the thought is you are better prepared to be a professional artist than you were the day before. The profession is not kind and the thought is that this flavor of feedback prepares one for that. I both agree and disagree. It takes a lot of internal work to get through this kind of feedback and of course, art school does not offer this kind of internal work as part of the equation. But if you can come out the other side, it does create a fearlessness simply because you have heard it all and learned that sometimes there is just nothing to learn.
The next step in the systems design process is to create a simple systems map of the different groups and individuals assumed to be important parts of the fine arts critique system. These people and groups are known as stakeholders in systems design. You can see my initial map below.