Inside the tube and the importance of feedback

Failure to give feedback when it is expected or desired builds stress and resentment in the recipient.  The consequences for the problem solving leader may include lack of support in future projects, destruction of goodwill in current activities or, in the case of agencies such as the Samaritans, a potential harming of an individual if promised contact does not materialise.

Human beings are devoid of instinct. We develop ourselves exclusively through learning, either directly or via the experience of others (parents, teachers, friends).  That is why we spend more time than any other species being taught, shepherded and learning from others.  We measure the effectiveness of our applied learning exclusively through feedback loops.  The absence of feedback after dispensing our (problem solving) expertise severely curtails our motivation to help the requester in the future. This is an important learning point for the problem solving leader.

I was reminded of the power of feedback loops this week as I spent 40 minutes in the tight, noisy confines of an MRI machine. Many will suggest that sanitation, anaesthetics or penicillin have yielded the biggest advance in human health, but non-invasive imaging technology is also a worthy candidate. The data from this equipment gives great certainty and comfort to patients and clinicians alike and, for some, avoids the trauma and danger of exploratory neurosurgery.

However, having an MRI scan is not a pleasant experience. The patient is placed within a long narrow tube whose span always seems to be 2” less than shoulder width. The head is tightly held within a 3-sided box, and caged on top by a plastic grill that lies 1” above the nose. The roof of the tube lies 1” above this. The patient, now securely constrained, remains enclosed in the machine for a series of scans each lasting between 2—10 mins. The whole routine takes 40 minutes on average.

Between each scan, the MRI technician gives feedback over a speaker on the scan just completed and details the type of scan to be initiated; its duration and the likely sound of the magnets as they whirl around the machine.  Thus informed, patients can now adopt the appropriate coping strategies; humming hymns, reliving great moments in sports or rehearsing an upcoming strategy presentation for example.

But on this occasion the feedback loop broke.  I had come to the end of a scan and was awaiting the next set of instructions that typically follow. Silence. I wait for 30 seconds. Silence. I wait for another 30 seconds. More silence. I try to fidget but I’m held rigidly within this 4 tonne magnet. 

I lay there for 7 minutes. I know this because I sing the Changeling (the Doors, 4:17), Calon Lan (full version by Llanelli Male Voice Choir, 2:10) and I was 2 minutes into Glenn Gould’s version of the Goldberg Variations when I heard the scratch of the speaker coming to life. The voice of the technician apologising for having to step away from her desk.  The absence of feedback contributed to a distinctly uncomfortable experience over which I felt no sense of control.

So, whether you interact with customers, suppliers or colleagues, giving feedback is critical to their development and independence—particularly if that feedback relates to the core expertise by which that person defines their most value adding problem solving contribution.

 Likewise, while good leaders may give feedback appropriately, the seniority of their position may hinder others from giving useful developmental feedback. This needs to be addressed because feedback is the route to improvement.

 The importance to leadership of giving and receiving feedback will be an important section in the updated Foundry programme.  This section will be lead by Marcus Wynne. Marcus is a former US Paratrooper, diplomatic bodyguard and US Air Marshall.

Marcus is a specialist in stress inoculation and accelerated learning under stressful conditions, and has direct experience on the importance of feedback loops—and the repercussions of their absence.

 For further information on this programme look for an announcement on 1st July 2012

UPDATE 9 June 2012

In an earlier version of this posting I stated that Marcus Wynne had served as a US Army Ranger. This is incorrect.  Marcus had formerly served as a US Paratrooper, and the posting has been updated to reflect this fact.

Simon LuntComment