How rules set you free to give great feedback

Rather than being constraints how can rules set you and your teams free? How can this help you give great feedback and raise the quality of design work from your team?

Every week I spend my days coaching design leaders and in these videos, I reflect upon that the common themes and questions that came up in the week.



[00:00:00] Andy Polaine: Rather than being constraints. How can rules set you and your teams free to create great work?

My name is Andy Polaine and every week I spend my days coaching design leaders. And in these videos, I reflect upon the common themes and questions that came up this week. And this week I want to talk about critique, culture and quality of work and how to raise it and how to set it up.

The Magic Circle

[00:00:22] Andy Polaine: But I’m going to go all the way back to 1938.

There’s a man called Johan Huizinga. He wrote a book called Homo Ludens and it was all about exploring games and play. And in it he came up with this concept of the magic circle as he was researching games. And the magic circle, you will know as something like a boxing ring or the lines on a football field, or the board on a board game. And in the magic circle different rules apply. So in a boxing ring you can punch someone, but you can’t punch them beneath the belt. On a football pitch, by which I don’t mean American rugby, I mean soccer, you have to kick the ball unless you’re the goalie and then you can pick it up with your hands. And if it goes out of that white line, then you start again and so forth.

And this is a really important concept because what happens actually is that those rules allow a different kind of behavior when you’re in the magic circle to the behavior than when you’re outside. And when it comes to critique culture, for example, and crit sessions, if you actually just have a very open structure and you say, okay, everyone bring their work and we’re going to talk about it. No one really knows what the rules are in that situation. So what they will do is, they will default to the normal social rules of the place, either the explicit ones or the tacit ones. So that might mean they defer to someone who’s more senior. That might mean that they’re polite with each other and don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings about their work.

All of those things can be really problematic because what happens is everything sort of merges into like a mediocre middle and that’s not what you want for the work.

Most people have some idea of these rules from brainstorming where you’ll say, build on each other’s ideas, don’t crush an emergent idea or yes and instead of no, but. Those are all rules that are guiding default behavior.

Feedback Structures - Rose, Thorn, Bud

There were a couple that I quite like. One is called rose, thorn, bud. That’s where a person will show their work and they’ll ask for feedback and while they’re receiving the feedback they stay silent. That’s a really important part. And they are also quite specific about what they want feedback on.

[00:02:18] Andy Polaine: And then rose thorn bud typically it was done with post-it notes. Obviously it’s going to be done probably these days with digital post-it notes. Roses are the things that are working well, thorns are the things that are not working so well. And buds are things that have potential for development. And what happens is once the person is presenting people, write those things down, or it’s done asynchronously, and they post them up around the work.

Feedback Structures - Stars & Wishes

[00:02:41] Andy Polaine: I have another one, which everybody, like you actually comes from my nerdy, Dungeons & Dragons world in tabletop role-playing games there’s a thing called stars and wishes as a way of giving feedback at the end. And stars are the things that you really liked and wishes of things that you wish had happened or wish had been there. I really like this one and I use it a lot with workshops when I do training to give each other feedback and also to give me feedback because they’re both actually positive things. So a star sounds positive and a wish sounds positive too, but the wish is actually critique sort of disguised. People are just more comfortable about giving that kind of feedback. So that works really, really well.

Don’t bring finished work

[00:03:18] Andy Polaine: Another rule you might have—and this is a thing I’m hearing quite often from design leaders—which is they’re saying in my teams, keep bringing polished work to crit sessions or feedback sessions, review sessions, whatever you call those. And I don’t know what they’ve done in between. I haven’t seen their working. Where are the other sketches where all the other ideas.

So a couple of rules you could have is bring all the other ideas along. Show us how you got to where you got to. Or you might just simply have a rule of please do not bring any polished, finished work. And I think we mostly all know, when you present someone with polished, final work, or at least final looking work, people are very hesitant to give feedback or critique because they think, well, this person’s done all that hard work I don’t really want to burst their bubble.

So one way of dealing with this is to have a rule where you say only bring draft work to a review or a crit session, because we want to be free to give feedback and critique.

No conversation without an artefact

[00:04:15] Andy Polaine: And another rule, and this might be for one-on-ones as well as in group crit and feedback sessions, is to always have an artifact. It is very, very easy to end up having a talk fest around an idea or a thing of what it might be and you can get really bogged down in debates and arguments around methods and all of those kinds of things without having an artifact. And actually having a thing, whatever it is, it could be a sketch it could be a piece of work that is closer to a finished stage or finished draft. It could be something else you’ve seen that is a piece of inspiration. Whatever it is in those conversations it is really useful to have some kind of artifact. This is also true for when you’re having conversations with other stakeholders.

Because when you have an artifact, the dynamic changes from being an oppositional one with "here’s my opinion and well I’m going to tell you why you’re wrong" to you’re looking at a third thing. When it’s actually in a physical space, you literally turning to the side and looking at a third thing. On Zoom or whatever you’re still looking at a third thing, but you might be looking at it on another monitor on another window. The point about this is that metaphorically you’re still sort of side by side, looking at a third thing and having a conversation about whether it works or not.

Ask about intent

[00:05:27] Andy Polaine: One of the things that’s essential to do as a manager is to ask really good questions. The very first one being, what was your intent with this? What are you trying to achieve? And what are you struggling with? Now, ideally this then becomes the norm for everyone to say my intent with this was X, Y, and Z. And the bit I want feedback on is this.

If you just offer up a piece of work for just general feedback. People are just going to come up with stuff. I don’t really like the color. They might talk about something that’s actually irrelevant to what you’re trying to find out. And so being specific about asking for the feedback that you want, helps people actually give better feedback.

So again, you set the rules up there and then you get a really good outcome as a result. Then people can give you feedback about what you’ve asked and also by talking about intent it allows the person giving the feedback to say, "Well given your intent, I’m not really getting that from this, that’s not really coming across to me."

And then it’s an I statement from that person. So it’s not, "This isn’t working, this work is rubbish." You’re saying, given your intent, it’s not really working for me and then you can have a conversation about that.

The danger of politeness

[00:06:27] Andy Polaine: When you take away that oppositional structure, you also don’t get caught in the politeness trap. I’m a bit wary about saying this… I think politeness can be really deadly for quality work.

So, not being polite does not mean being rude or blunt or any of those things, and there’s a lot of close to abusive behavior that is dressed up in people just saying, "Well, I’m just calling it how I see it. I’m just saying what I think." And that’s not what I’m saying.

What I’m saying is if you’re holding back on saying what would be useful for that person and be useful feedback for them because you’re feeling too polite and you don’t want to hurt their feelings in any way. Then actually you’re not doing that person a favor. In fact, in the worst case, you’re setting them up for failure later on. Either with this particular piece of work or later on in their career, because they’re not getting the feedback that’s going to help them grow.

I know there’s the book Radical Candor. I kind of liked the idea of it. I don’t like how it’s often ended up being enacted, because there’s such a fine line between being candid and being rude and abusive. I think you really have to be careful. But just think about am I holding back for the right reasons here?

This clarity about the rules and the structure can also really help the different thinking styles, meet each other, which is what I talked about last week. So if you’re an extroverted person, it can help give you some structure and if you’re an introverted person, the structure helps you formulate your thoughts and gives you time to do so.


I hope that’s helpful. If you’d like to check out my coaching practice, it is at You’ll also find my blog there, you’ll find the other coaching reflections which you will also find on YouTube. You can also find links to my courses and I’ll put all those links below.

If you’ve got any of your own ideas and suggestions or you disagree, I’m open to robust critique. So please fire away in the comments.

Thank you very much. I will see you again soon.

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