Critical comment........who needs it?

Critical comment is really important for anyone who wants to get better at what they do. 

That much is obvious. But is enough done to encourage it? Do we know how best to give it when others need it? And do you we know what to do with it when we receive it ourselves?

As an individual, are you prepared to seek out opinions that might be contrary to yours? As a business or organisation, are you structured in such a way that people can present their work to a critical audience in a way that might result in that work being safely questioned?

It’s a difficult and sensitive area that requires great care in the workplace. But without receiving an open and honest response to the work that we're doing, the chances of us improving what we do are pretty slim.

In schools of architecture, the ‘crit' system is used as a method of reviewing projects. The term ‘crit’ being an abbreviation of ‘critique’, the approach having been borrowed from schools of art. Both art and architecture are subjects that are impossible to learn solely though instruction and so the principal thrust of education in these fields is a constant process of 'do and review'.

Having been given a brief for a project, the student derives ideas which are subsequently developed in to a more or less completed form. Along the way, the project is reviewed periodically by means of a ‘crit' which typically involves the student presenting the work to an audience of invited guests, tutors and fellow students. The presentation is then followed by a question and answer session and then the audience is invited to provide comment.

This form of review can be daunting initially. Over time, and with experience, it is possible to regard the crit as a beneficial component of the work process and not just an event that has to be endured. There are a number of key themes that the system emphasises:

  1. Ideas are starting points to get you going.
  2. Some ideas are better than others.
  3. Ideas that look initially promising, may diminish later.
  4. Having other ideas to fall back on is important.
  5. Becoming personally attached to any one idea is constraining.

More than anything, though, the process teaches the student to see the comments generated by the review as a resource to be used by the student to best advantage. Comments are likely to have been partially supportive and partially critical. They may well be contradictory. They should certainly give the student a feel for what is working and what is not. But it is up to the student to subsequently filter or edit the comments and to turn them in to the next set of ideas in taking the project forward (although this doesn’t mean that the process will be linear).

Given the effectiveness of this process of ‘do and review’, it is surprising that it isn't adopted more routinely throughout the world of business. (It isn’t even used as extensively as it should be in professional architectural practice). The business literature and the gurus have tended to focus on the issue of idea generation, hence all of the hype around brainstorming. The crit system is completely different from brainstorming. The audience is not being asked for ideas. Just their open and honest response. And the crit takes place at intervals during the development of the work. Not at the beginning. 

With certain caveats (e.g. not everyone will be suited to it and some work will be confidential or too specialist), here are a couple of ways in which the process could be adopted in the workplace:

Take what ever it is that you’re working on at the moment and find a way of making it visible and understandable to your colleagues. It doesn’t matter what your role is or what you’re working on. Pin it on the wall next to your desk and whenever anyone comes past, tell them what you’re doing and what you’re trying to achieve. Ask them for an honest and open opinion. Repeat the process with other colleagues at any level of seniority. Collate the responses, review them and decide on which to act.

Yes, you may be regarded as being a bit weird to start with. But it won’t be long before people will see your behaviour for what it is.  A simple and effective method of improving what you do. The likelihood is that they will try what you're doing for themselves and the process will fan out. Good things always spread.

Build it in to the culture of your organisation or team. Don’t be seduced in to thinking that as long as the boss and the client are happy with the work, that the work must therefore be the best that could have been done. Allocate a space in the office where the crit can take place. A meeting room is ok but a communal space is better. This is not the kind of thing that should be done behind closed doors.

Plan it in to your work flow. Not too often. Just at key moments and when there is likely to be time and energy left to be able to react to the consequences of the review.

If the review is carried out in the right way, the work outcomes will be improved and those doing the work will get better at what they do. Remember, this is not a checking exercise and nor is it a quality assurance review. It shouldn’t be too formulaic and the audience, which should be as diverse as possible, should be encouraged and allowed to comment openly and honestly.

If you’re interested in getting better at what you do and currently don’t do this kind of thing, give it a try and see if it helps.I’d be interested to receive your critical comment.

Post Script
I should point out that I chose the term 'critical comment' carefully. There are problems with other words in this subject area:

For instance, I could have used the word ‘criticism’ but this has two meanings:

  1. the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.
  2. the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of a (literary or artistic) piece of work.

The second meaning fits with what I'm talking about but it is tarnished by the first and the word therefore appears negative and insensitive and tends to be avoided in the workplace.

I could have used the word ‘feedback' which is often used when providing a response to work or performance. 'Feedback' is better being much more benign but it consequently becomes easier to fall in to the trap of using it to avoid tough issues that may need to be discussed. It leads to all sorts of other euphemistic phrases, such as 'opportunities for growth' which skirt around the issues at hand.