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Discovering the hidden value of Feedback

The Hidden Value Of Feedback

The American architect and leader in sustainable development, William McDonough, once taught me that, “Any system without a feedback loop is, by definition: stupid.” What he meant is that any system that isn’t testing the assumptions it’s founded on and then adjusting to feedback isn’t actually learning. 

This was a wake up call for me at the time because, even when we have the best of intentions, if we are don’t create and pay attention to feedback loops in our businesses and in our lives, we are being stupid.

The Map is Not the Territory

The terrain we encounter on the ground is rarely identical to the map we use to navigate it with. Geography is not naturally grid shaped and it changes over time. Grids (like words) are our representations of reality. They are not the reality itself. Just as money is not wealth and a menu is not the food that sustains us. The plans we make for our businesses are seldom the everyday reality we face when we implement them. 

Billionaire businessman Scott D. Cook put it in more relatable terms when he said “for every one of our failures, we had spreadsheets that looked awesome.”

One of the main reasons for this is that our knowledge is limited. We know what we know (Jane knows she can drive a car). We know what we don’t know (Jane knows she doesn’t speak French). We don’t know what we don’t know (Jane doesn’t that there are rich oil reserves beneath her property). Being aware of the limitations of our knowledge is hugely important when it comes to recognising the value of feedback.

The Hidden Gold

So how do we discover what we don’t know what we don’t know? How do we tap into the hidden value of this knowledge? How do we find the gold in the ground beneath our very feet?

It starts with recognising that you don’t know everything. Then we have to understand ourselves and how we tick. In 1902 social psychologist, Charles Cooley, identified our own internal feedback loops through his concept of the looking-glass self: “I am not who I think I am; I am not who you think I am; I am who I think you think I am.” 

You might need to read this a couple of times for it to sink in. Essentially what Cooley is saying is that society is an interweaving and inter-working of our mental selves (a series of feedback loops). In other words, we develop our sense of self through how we believe others think about us.

As you can imagine, this theory has grown in popularity with the rise of social media. Online you can represent different versions of yourself, receive feedback, judgements, etc based on follows, likes and so on. Most businesses miss the value of social media in this context. As Ashton Kutcher once told me at a conference: “Social Media is not a broadcast tool, it’s a conversation with a feedback loop.”

There are two paths to the hidden gold available to you. Both start from within and both require you to step outside of your usual patterns of behaviour to find them.

Just like navigating any jungle, first you need to stop and listen: internally and externally.

Internal Feedback

The body is an incredibly effective feedback loop. Most of the time it is functioning without you doing anything to it. We breath 12-20 times a minute without thought, our hearts beat 100,000 times per day pumping the equivalent of 2,000 gallons of blood through our bodies. All without your focussed conscious attention. When toxins are discovered, they are purged. When our bodies need rest, we feel tired. When hungry, our stomach rumbles reminding us to eat.

Most of us consider our body as serving our brain, which is the area we tend to feel that our sense of self resides. But, consider for a moment the idea that our brains and the entire system of our body is actually at the bidding of our gut. 

Did you know that 80% of the neurotransmitter serotonin (also known as the happy hormone) is produced in our guts? Serotonin regulates our mood and social behaviour, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory as well as sexual desire and function.

What has this got to do with feedback? Well, the first thing to pay attention to the feedback is what is happening inside yourself. Shut off from all of the outside influences and listen to your body. Where is there tension? How are you feeling? What is the likely cause of these sensations?

To do this effectively, make sure your stomach is not empty, you are in good health and you are not tired. Set aside a quiet time and space and then breath. Move beyond the thoughts you have about yourself, your business and the world around you.

Remember that you are not your thoughts. Your thoughts and decisions come and go like hiccoughs. You are the presence behind your thoughts (if you want to go really deeply into this you are the entire cosmos - but we’ll save that for another time).

If you take care of your health and well being, your gut will often guide you more clearly than the estimated fifty thousand plus thoughts we have each day. Nobody can dispute how you feel about things and only you know your own feelings.

Listening to your internal feedback is the place to start when you want to consider what you know and don’t know. Sometimes your internal feedback can even take you into territory that you don’t know you don’t know. 

Once you are in tune with your own internal feedback you can start to pay attention to the feedback from others on things that you don’t know that you don’t know as well as things you do know but have forgotten to pay attention to (you know - the ones most commonly and frustratingly identified by consultants).

External Feedback

From Cooley’s perspective, external feedback is really filtered by your own internal bias anyway (I am who I think you think I am). This causes people like Jane issues when she is struggling to pay his bills and she doesn’t know that there’s a deep rich well of oil beneath her. How could she ever discover this?

Even if Jane were to ask experts to help her she may well be hampered by beliefs that she might have built up about her unworthiness. Stories that her family, friends, school, etc may have shared with her and which she in turned believed and built into the way she sees the world around her. Aside from that, how would she even know to ask for the type of expert that would help her to uncover oil reserves.

The fact is, external feedback is our best chance of improving our lot. Even when we find it hard and don’t like it. Perhaps even more so when we have an emotional reaction to it. Just as we need to pay attention to what’s going on inside ourselves, we also need to have our ears and eyes open to the world around us. 

We need to find others in our lives who offer honest, unbiased feedback on how we are doing. We need to actively solicit feedback and be open to hearing it’s message, even when it’s difficult and our egos are stinging from it. It’s most helpful though, when we have a clear idea of where you want to go.

The Right Direction

Lewis Carroll once wrote “If you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which path you take.”  We need know what we want and in which direction we are heading. We then need to listen to our internal and external feedback loops as we go to determine if we are heading the right way and adjust accordingly.

Where is the abundance currently concealed from your view in your life? Where do you want it to be? What can you do to uncover it?

What you focus on will guide you. Slow down. Pay attention to what is working and ignore what isn’t. If you have an emotional reaction to a feedback loop then there is almost certainly a lesson to be learned from it and, who knows, perhaps even gold hidden within it.

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