Failure, Feedback, and the Echo Chamber

When I began writing my first book in 2010, The Paul Society, I had just met the woman who I would marry two years later. What started out as a “bucket list” project, led to one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. Beyond the practical benefits of research, writing, and editing, I was forced to recognize, and deal with, my own confirmation biases.

After reviewing the first drafts of a couple of chapters, my soon-to-be-wife, Kim, asked, “Do you intend to just preach to the choir?”

Of course, that wasn't my intent, but after a critical review, I realized that’s where the content was headed. The problem, I found, was that the positive feedback I had been receiving up until that point was from people who shared my beliefs and ideological views. I was writing in an echo chamber.

Opposing Views

I still find it difficult to seek out feedback from people with opposing views — I must be intentional about it. Like most people, I prefer a slap on the back and an “Atta boy.” It’s human nature to want someone else to reinforce us and our ideas. That may help explain why Facebook has over a billion monthly active users.

But this poses a significant challenge for all people, but especially creative types and business leaders.

No one wants to have their baby called ugly. Our projects and our businesses are our babies. And rarely do we get it right with the first concept; it’s an iterative process that takes confidence and the ability to separate yourself from your projects to be effective.

For Business Owners, It’s Far More Complicated

Of all the challenges startup founders face, perhaps the most difficult is finding people who will tell you like it is. The reality is that the people, on whose expertise the success of your business is dependent, receive a paycheck with your signature on it. And if you think that doesn’t have an impact on the type of feedback you receive, you’re deluding yourself.

It cannot be understated how important the role the environment you create within your organization can play in how candor is displayed or inhibited.

Consider this: Just because you own a company, it doesn't necessarily mean you are going to be the smartest person in every room. In fact, if you are, you’re probably not hiring the right people. Worse, if your people believe you are always the smartest person in the room, you’re likely not getting honest feedback.

A business owner who makes the mistake of listening to people who only tell them what they think they want to hear is likely to wake up one day to find someone else driving their bus.

The Importance Of Candor

To be frank with someone involves a certain level of confidence in your own abilities and an equal amount of trust from the recipient of your criticism — and vice versa. Candor could not be more crucial to a business owner, but in many organizations, the boss is never wrong. Or at least, they may not admit to being wrong.

Let’s suspend reality for just a moment. Let’s say it’s possible for a business owner to make all the right decisions — to be right all the time. Think about the message this would send. By sending the signal that you are infallible, you would likely be creating an environment in which failure is not acceptable.

In his book, Creativity, Inc, Pixar co-founder, Ed Catmull, warns, “In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.”

Self-aware, critical thinkers often change their mind. It doesn't necessarily mean they were wrong about a previously-held view; it simply means they are open to new ideas and information. But if you create a system in which you make it impossible for people to change their mind, you’re likely to lose high-performing people, left with just the “yes men.”

In his memoir, Phil Knight recalls the type of management team that helped build Nike into one of the greatest brands in the world. “And we were nearly all self-loathers, which kept the egos in check. There was none of that smartest-guy-in-the-room foolishness. Hayes, Strasser, Woodell, Johnson, each would have been the smartest guy in any room, but none believed it of himself, or the next guy. Our meetings were defined by contempt, disdain, and heaps of abuse. While floating ideas, and shooting down ideas, the last thing we took into account was someone’s feelings. Including mine. Especially mine.”

When we look at some of the most successful and creative brands, it seems that one of the common attributes they share is the way at which they view failure and feedback. From all outward accounts, companies like Apple, Nike, Google, and Pixar allow a lot of latitude in these areas. But more importantly, when business leaders are transparent about their failures and talk openly about their part in them, they make it safe for others to do the same.