“This Is Not The Art I Am Looking For” — What To Say About Creative Work If You Aren’t A Jedi

There was a pretty interesting article and ensuing discussion on a Harvard Business Review article about providing and receiving feedback on creative projects.

As much as I have written about arts and culture related topics, I don’t think I have really addressed how to provide constructive feedback in a creative environment before. If nothing more, the article provides some things to reflect upon in regard to one’s own practices.

Author Spenser Harrison discusses the results of a study he and a collaborator conducted which found that feedback was most effective when it was solicited out of curiosity and when it was given by people who recognized their feedback was subjective.

Asking for feedback out of curiosity. … Sometimes requests for feedback are overly narrow…There are often underlying reasons for asking a specific question like this, including limiting a coworker from attacking your work or showcasing something you’re proud of (in which case you really don’t want feedback — you want admiration).

This approach, however, limits the potential of creative work, because it doesn’t allow for the possibility of novelty. Changing one color, for example, may not push the boundaries to create something that peers and potential customers haven’t seen before.

Our research showed that highly curious individuals asked extremely open questions like “What do you think?” or “Where could I go next with this?” These designers received significantly more feedback than those asking narrow questions, and their final designs received higher scores…In this way, creative work is like dancing: Questions born out of curiosity signal that the creative worker is looking for a dance partner.

Provide feedback based on subjectivity.


When providing feedback to creative workers, signal that your opinion is exactly that: an opinion. This seems deceptively easy. Doing it requires providing feedback that includes first-person pronouns: I, me, and my. “I see…” or “What strikes me is that…” or “My opinion is…” Many managers find this difficult, because they have been trained to solve concrete problems, not to consider what something really means. Providing feedback on creative work means setting aside the managerial impulse to plan and retain control. Doing so allows managers to understand that their opinions provide potential trajectories a creative worker might try — not the “right” road to take.

I have had people use that tactic of limiting the scope for feedback before but hadn’t recognized the motivation behind it. (I suspect I have used it a couple times myself.)   As much as managers would love to be able to exercise Jedi mind powers and get everyone to agree this is not the art they were looking for, other approaches are necessary.

What I really helped expand the concepts presented in the article were some of the observations made in the comments. The one I appreciated most was made by Gabby Rosi who probably spoke for a situation a lot of people find themselves in when asked to evaluate work created for their use.

…My typical dialogue goes like this: “this is a good start… I like how you did XXX… what do you think about this…” when I really want to say is “this is way off the mark.” Occasionally, I end up not including this person in a project because it is uncomfortable for me. Yes, not the best approach that I want to change.

In his response, author Spenser Harrison offered the following:

First, Kim Elsbach (UC Davis) has done really fun research on Hollywood pitch meetings…If we deem the person as not creative then we often feel a pull to provide remedial feedback like your “this is way off the mark” comment or we try to train them on what to do.

In some of my earlier work with modern dancers and R&D designers, we saw that feedback, especially in early phases, was most helpful as a question. That is, before we can criticize the idea, we need to understand the pool of ideas that the idea came from and the exploratory process that led to that pool. Often when creators feel they have a feedback provider up to speed with their creative process they’ll explicitly ask, “what should I do next?” That’s the golden opening for providing some gentle advice.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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