Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How Leaders Monitor Feedback

I was biking up my favorite Malibu mountain road a while back, when a white Miata flew around the curve, veered away from hitting me head-on, and plunged down a ravine. As I reach the spot where his tires last clawed the road, I saw that the driver had landed against several thick bushes 30 feet down. The car was banged up, but upright, and the driver was crawling up the embankment towards me.

He reached the road, straightened up, assured me he was fine, and called for a tow truck. He then encouraged me, several times, to continue my bike ride up the steep mountain road. I did. That's when I decided to count the curves on the mountain and started to think about those curves as feedback.

Webster’s Dictionary defines feedback as “the return to the point of origin of evaluative or corrective information.” Feedback is everywhere. A market-based economy works because consumers give continuous feedback to producers. Feedback is also how we survive. The human body incorporates thousands of feedback mechanisms that keep us alive. And failure to pay attention to feedback is what almost killed the driver on that mountain.

I counted 37 curves from the spot where he went over the edge to the top of that mountain. This means he had 37 opportunities to become aware of, learn from, and adjust to the feedback the mountain and his car were giving him as he raced down. He was getting feedback about the road conditions, his car, his ability to negotiate hairpin curves. He was, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, getting the experience but missing the meaning. How about you?

How often do you have an experience, but miss the meaning? I know I'm NOT learning my lesson when the universe keeps sending me (i.e., I keep creating) the same experience over and over again. It's always Groundhog Day for leaders who don't learn from their experience.

Since you receive feedback from customers, team members, executives, family and friends every day, here are a few ideas to help you use feedback to stay on track.

1. Be open to most things, attached to few

If the guy on the mountain had been open to what the hairpin turns were teaching him, he might not have plunged off the road. How often do you go so fast that you miss critical feedback? Sometimes, I become so attached to my way of doing things that I miss the "corrective information" someone or something is telling me.

2. Write for insight

In the book ‘The Artist’s Way,’ author Julia Cameron describes a powerful technique called Morning Pages. She says that if you really want to discover the meaning of something, write three pages by hand, non-stop, and fast, in the morning. Anything that comes to mind, write it down, without editing. Don’t think, don’t hesitate, and don’t stop. You will be amazed at what this "internal feedback" teaches you. Effective leaders know that life is lived, and experience is made meaningful, from the inside out.

3. Ask positive questions

Do you ever get down on yourself or blame circumstances when life throws you a curve? We all mess up. But when you stumble, remember that there is no failure, only feedback. It’s only failure if you don’t learn anything. So, whenever you're hit by unwelcome events, focus on positive feedback by asking questions like:

- What could I learn from this?

- Will this be critical five years from today?

- How can I view this differently?

- How might I use this to serve others in the future?

Leaders receive tons of feedback as they speed through the day. Perhaps if you paid closer attention to this "corrective information" you might make more meaning out of what happens to you. Maybe feedback is about learning for the future. Is feedback really feed forward?

See you on the mountain,


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