Monday, 21 May 2012

Porridge is bad for you!

"What?! What is he talking about?" This blog post is about challenging one's criticism and trying to make it more effective using simple methods. This post is about moving away from unhealthy criticism into constructive critique and feedback. This is about finding the right mind-set.

Why do people criticize?

"You're doing it all wrong!" "Your tie is hideous." You've seen it. You've heard it. Probably you've even done it. I know I have. And in most occasions I have let my self-criticism be clouded by someone else’s opinion about the same subject. By not having a concrete opinion of one's own it's easy to adapt to criticism of someone else.

Let's take an example of a guru that has strict criticism against one subject - a porridge (seems like a neutral enough). We all know that porridge is good for us, right? What if a nutrition guru says that porridge is bad? What do we do? If we have huge respect on that guru's thoughts and doings, might we blind our own judgment with the upward gaze towards the guru? We might just take the guru's opinion granted and start proclaiming that porridge is bad for you.

One way out of this bad equation is to step back and challenge one’s own critique. Is it justified? Are you making an assumption? (Great blog post about defeating assumptions by Ilari Henrik Aegerter) What if the guru was wrong? After making sense of what do YOU think, then you should back the critique up with facts, not opinions. By finding the facts, you might be looking for biased facts, but at least you have something to back it up. It's obvious (to some) that a biased opinion should stay as an opinion, but they rarely do. Instead of being opinions they become statements supported by chosen facts.

Doing basic critique, source checking, challenging, context projecting, you can find the root cause of the guru's opinion about the porridge. Does he (our guru is a he today) have an agenda of his own? Are there hidden meanings in the critique itself? Does it provoke thinking instead of criticizing the product?

How do people criticize?

"When giving feedback, do it like so: Always give good feedback in public and be precise about what was done well. Always give negative feedback in private and be precise. Try to find the solution instead of the one to blame." This was said by my father who has decades of experience in management and leading people. I have always thought this as the fundamental guideline of critique. I think most people know this and agree with this, but how come most people don't act accordingly?

Let's say that the guru had discovered some facts that "Ye olde bran porridge" has all sort of chemicals in it that disable some growth hormones on a child. Obviously that's a statement to be told to the public, right? And as we hold the guru in high regard, he is mandated to present his opinion (possibly supported by facts) in some public media. There are channels in which you can present a complaint about food (health inspector or some kind of an agency) and they will take the necessary precautions to tell the public that "porridge is bad for you". Possibly they have first discussed with the porridge company, who might have taken the product off the market.

The guru might give criticism about porridge in public and have the wrath of the porridge company on his shoulders. He might not care as he's a nutrition guru and has an agenda of his own (hoes he?). Is the guru doing the right thing expressing his opinion so loudly in public? Is the guru promoting himself instead of giving critique?  Was the bad thing in the porridge, in the chemical, or in the company making the porridge?

Where's the difference in the approach between the two models of critique? Was the guru able to achieve the goal of his criticism through a public channel (which ever the goal might have been)? Was the "behind closed doors" critique more efficient than the "in your face" critique? They all depend on the context, obviously. What was the goal of the critique?


Some people think critique is feedback. Well it kinda is in some extent. Feedback however can be constructive even when the feedback is negative. Feedback is given when someone asks for it; critique is given when ever. Feedback is not trying to make one feel happy/sad but to make them improve; critique is about making a statement. When giving feedback don't sugarcoat it, instead say what YOU like and you'd like to see improved. "I liked the taste of porridge and how my stomach feels afterwards. To make it even more healthy I would not put in the chemicals that prohibit my growth."

As the feedback is a kind of a thing to be asked for, critique is the kind of a thing you just blurb out. Feedback has a purpose and it is meant to improve the one receiving the feedback. Critique has the tendency to provoke something. Conversation, debate, hatred, etc. Challenging can be more effective a way than critique. Challenging the critique itself can become the most valuable feedback there is!

Is the content self-justifying or do we need to empathize to support the critique?

There are tons of guides in how to give feedback without being critical. I know a dozen occasions where I have let my judgment be clouded by numerous things that have lead into bad critique and undesired results. Here's one:

I try to promote intelligent testing and intelligent approach to quality in general. I also believe that certifications that focus on the certificate itself are no good. A certificate that focuses on skills in a field that requires skills is a good thing; artificial certificate concentrating on a narrow view about best-practices (and only knowledge thereof) is a bad thing. This is what I thought and still think. I was having a discussion with people I think highly of about “what is your opinion about ISTQB-provided series of certificates”. By making a comment that the certificate looks good on paper (with some unflattering spices), I provoked a series of questions about “how do I back up my statement” and "do you even know what you're speaking of".

The questions stuck home and I started to think of how I really thought about the issue. The fundamental thought behind the issue remains the same, but as I have not delved deep enough into the syllabus, the history thereof, the initial goal behind the syllabus. Am I eligible to make claims about the issue? Was I repeating what the other people were saying and them making myself feel important about myself by making a rash claim? Does my opinion really matter in this case and could I do some good without being so loud about it? Is there a possibility to raise conversation about the issue within the certificate organization without sounding like a zealot?

With the comment I made (which was criticism at its worst) I thought the content of the comment was self-justifying. "Obviously all the people were thinking the same so I just said it out loud." Even though some of them were, they rightfully challenged my comment and forced me to think about it. What was my goal when stating something like that? What was the desired outcome? Praises to me? More Twitter followers? To raise conversation? To sound like a dumb-ass?

What I did achieve with the comment was for me to be able to criticize my own behavior and claims. I once claimed (in Finnish) that one way to achieve the best quality of an end-product is to "Murder you darlings" - by finding the most direct route from the current point into the desired point. By removing all the excess and self-promotion from the content. To go directly towards results. In making the comment I a was focusing on "sounding cool" instead of trying to use the words as a tool to achieve a goal (which apparently was shrouded).

Did I hurt someone in the process? Can't tell. Not directly, I assume (Pekka, you're assuming things).

Did I achieve the goal? Can't tell. I wasn't aware that there was a goal.

Did I learn something? Oh boy, did I!? ;)


Ilari Henrik Aegerter said...

Thanks, I am honored to have been the inspiration for this post and I am happy to see that it turned out to become such a positive and balanced article.

Giving feedback - positive or negative - has primary goals: Either to sustain positive behavior or change it into positive in the future. Actually that is the only thing one can do. The past has already happened and the major error in criticism is, that it mingles in the past. It is not only ineffective, but damaging, too. Criticism destroys relationships.

It is sometimes hard to do, but the best mindset to give negative feedback, is, in an upbeat mood. If you can smile and appreciate the person while giving feedback, it becomes most effective. And strengthens the relationship, too.

Pekka Marjamäki said...

Hi, Ilari! Thanks for the comment!

I love the point of view, that you can give feedback only when you're feeling good! :D

- Peksi

Jari Laakso said...

Hi guys!

Firstly, I am smiling around here so let's try criticism in this way like Ilari recommended. Secondly, I don't fully agree on what I will write, but I feel like I need to disagree with at least something Ilari writes AND I feel like leaving a small challenge for you!

I think those are valid goals for feedback but not the only one's. How about someone who's frustrated and unburdens himself in a form of feedback? How about someone who gives (positive) feedback without meaning it? How about someone who is giving feedback in order to feel better of himself? Can you name 3 more occasions when your sentence is not necessarily valid?

Ok, good start, so let's continue with more bullets! Major error in criticism is that it happens in the past? What if it happens in the future? What if criticism helps to build a better product and make a load of money? Could it be possible to build a relationship from criticism?

I'm not yet done with the questions so let the beat(ing) go on! :-) Though I am smiling and writing this text feels pretty fun, is this the best way really? I am not convinced. I think it's a great influencing technique to pretend/act being angry and it works in many cases better than smiling. In fact, come to think about it, it's common to think smiling people are a bit slow. Having fun is not for intellectual people. Intellectual people are serious!

I had something else on my mind too, but I already forgot that. I think I smiled too much. :-)

Best regards,

Ilari Henrik Aegerter said...

Well, well, Jari

You were not displaying an upbeat smile, but rather a nasty grin :-)

Anyway, whatever you do, you should always do it for yourself only and have others suffer as much as ever possible. You best pursue a career as a line manager because that gives you a lot of role power. Role power is great because you can tell people to do whatever the hell pleases you.

Need a chicken dance performed by an underling? Got it. Feel like not only criticizing somebody but humiliating your "resource" in front of everybody? Check! And it is fun, too! Especially for you.

Oh, did I forgot my irony-tags? Never mind. We got this covered by our Skype chat today.

Anyway, love your people and don't be evil.

NeoPulsagram said...

Hi, it's cool picture