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. 
Safe -
Free from harm or risk. Unhurt. Secure from threat of danger, harm, or loss. 
Unsafe -
Dangerous. Able or likely to cause harm or damage.
Useful -
Able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways. Of a valuable or productive kind 
Useless -
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. 
Block 7th
The goal of these initial maps is to roughly estimate who in the much larger scope of the art school system has an impact on the critique process in a single classroom. A wide focus is required here to imagine how different agendas might support or impede the process of a Safe + Useful critique. While students in the class along with the instructor are most immediately involved in the process, it is important to consider how leadership at the school, along with the community immediately surrounding the school, might impact what goes on in the classroom. Flexibility is critical to this initial stage of the investigation. Some stakeholders will have less impact than assumed. Also, there might be stakeholders who have not yet appeared on the map who could have a very significant impact on the process. 
The more advanced stages of this project illustrate that the stakeholder with the biggest impact on the critique process in the classroom is not only not present on this map, but was not even considered a factor in the system at all. This is my favorite part of systems thinking. The surprises that happen as the investigation of the system gets deeper and deeper. Exciting!!
Once an initial systems map has been established, the next step is to conduct stakeholder interviews. For the sake of the course timeline, I focused my interviews on both art school students and instructors. Interviews at this point in the process are to determine what stakeholders hold less significance, what stakeholders need to be added to the map and to gather a sense from different stakeholders of how the system operates. From this information, a more detailed map is created viewing the complex problem under a specific lens. 
For this closer look at the issues raised by stakeholder interviews, a Problem Map was determined appropriate. Problem maps excel at providing a deeper understanding of behaviors, structural influences, and mindsets present in a system and how these impact connections between stakeholders within a system. The creation of a Problem Map was a useful tool to help organize the information collected during stakeholder interviews, but the interviews themselves are what led to a discovery of the single most influential factor impacting art school class critiques (in terms of this study). And it was a complete surprise. 
Interviews with student stakeholders did not yield surprising results. As expected, students reported a range of positive and negative critique experiences all falling within the determined quadrants. Student stakeholders reported that what has been defined as Useful feedback was generally always preferred even if it arrived with an Unsafe delivery. In fact, most student stakeholders reported that feedback existing in the Unsafe + Useful quadrant, while difficult to tolerate and process resulted in the most growth, both in the moment and over time. This is a result that deserves more investigation and one that I will be seeking more data on when artists are interviewed as part of my quantitative feedback study. 
Interviews with instructor stakeholders provided significant results, one of which was entirely unexpected. Instructor stakeholders generally reported that they took great care in providing feedback that exists in the Safe + Useful quadrant and that this is where they feel a high-quality critique process should exist. But providing feedback in this quadrant was becoming increasingly challenging. I was expecting this challenge to be a result of the increasing fragility of college students due to overwhelming stress, anxiety, and a myriad of other mental health concerns. However, that is not what was reported by this group of stakeholders. Instructors report that the well-documented increase in mental health challenges in college students has definitely added to the importance of creating a safe environment for feedback in the classroom. And the instructors I interviewed all agree that safety, both physical and psychological is a top priority. But this did not factor into why instructors are increasingly unable to provide Useful feedback. The tipping point of the system does not directly relate to the well-being of the student population. It hinges upon instructor ratings. And it is the significance placed on these ratings by the greater university system that significantly impedes instructors from providing feedback in the Safe + Useful quadrant. 
Instructor ratings are publicly accessible online ratings that students give instructors. Interestingly enough, instructors report that even though they set up a system for Safe + Useful feedback in the classroom, this has little to no impact on the ratings that the students provide them, which seem to exist mostly in the Unsafe + Useless quadrant. Everything from comments on the instructors' dress, and voice, to assumptions about their personal life and even family. Everything seems fair game. This dichotomy could mean many things, including that instructors are not promoting as safe an environment as they think they are, but also that students are using these ratings to share unprocessed anger, aggression, and the like on a public stage. While instructors report that these ratings are annoying and can be hurtful and not helpful, the ratings would be chalked up to the students acting out against the system. Yet, it is the significance that universities are placing on these ratings that have instructors concerned not only for their jobs but that in the end, they cannot provide truly useful feedback and classroom instruction without fear of receiving a poor rating. Which in turn can decrease enrollment in their classes and result in termination. This was a greater concern among newer instructors than those who had been at a university for a longer duration. 
There are many ramifications of the rating system, I will not go into further detail here, but I imagine based on my experience with systems that student ratings are creating a much larger complex problem in greater university systems than is being acknowledged. Next week I’ll share my prototype, or suggestion for one way to shift the system. 

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published