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The three types of feedback

Feedback is essential for learning. While building products, we seek feedback from our users to know what they think and where we can improve. As employees, we seek feedback from our mentors and our managers. As students, we seek feedback from our peers and our teachers.

Feedback is built into everything that we do. We learn not to touch a hot stove or to eat too much ice cream at one go because of the feedback we have from experiences when we (or others like us) did do those things.

But not all feedback is equal.

There are different kinds of feedback.

When I give a presentation or perform a stand-up set or publish a book, the reaction (or the lack thereof) from the audience gives me feedback on what I just did. I can understand whether my delivery was good or not at a very high level. But I won't know why the audience reacted the way they did or what I can do to improve. This is merely a feedback on the outcome.

Whereas, if I'm explaining a certain point in my presentation and see confused stares in the audience, or if I make a politically incorrect joke and can feel the audience cringe, I am receiving slightly more nuanced feedback. I now know what exactly is going wrong, but I still don't know what I can do to make it right. I just know what went wrong. And this is informational feedback.

Finally, if my manager or a colleague comes around and makes a suggestion on how I can deliver my point better to avoid the confusion, or if a mentor tells me how to re-phrase the joke to make it less politically incorrect, then I'm getting the best kind of feedback, where I'm not only learning what went wrong, but also how I can correct it. This is corrective feedback.

Reacting to feedback on the outcome is the behaviour of an amateur. It takes a long time to get better in this manner as there could be hundreds of reasons why the outcome was a certain way and it will take for ever to narrow it down to the right one.

Looking for corrective feedback isn't possible in a lot of scenarios. It is only possible when we have a mentor or a coach who has gone through the exact same situation as the one we are in and can pinpoint the cause and provide corrective suggestions. Except for a classroom setting, I haven't really seen this anywhere else.

What we should be on the lookout for is informational feedback that tells us exactly what is going wrong so that we can then think up ways to correct it and then have another go. This is the approach we follow in product development, where we try and isolate the cause of potential effects in random sample tests so that we can conclusively say what caused a certain consequence, even though we won't learn how we can correct it.

Whenever you're looking for feedback, look for informational feedback and take outcome feedback with a pinch of salt.

(Hat-tip to Scott Young and his Ultralearning)

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