Giving Feedback to Improve Ideas

Costa Michailidis -
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A new idea is like a baby, totally helpless and full of potential!

Baby by Michal Bar Haim

(Photo by Michal Bar Haim)

In this article we detail how to deliver feedback in a way that improves ideas, maximizes their potential, and encourages those stewarding the idea to charge on with an open and adaptive mind.

Have you ever played the Devil's advocate?

Anytime you play the Devil's advocate, or give strengths and weaknesses, or use the phrase, Yes, but... you are secretly saying, Your idea sucks, and I'm going to tell you why.

It shouldn't be a mystery either. The phrases above mention the Devil and weakness, and slipping the word but into any sentence basically negates anything positive in that sentence.

Are you evaluating, or giving feedback?

The underlying assumption we usually hold when we engage our critical thinking, or judgment, is one of evaluation, one of choosing. This idea is good or bad; either or; one or the other.

It should be noted, judgment is useful and necessary in innovation. At many points throughout the innovation process, you must make choices, and you should reserve your judgment for those times. The moment someone asks you for feedback on an idea, is not one of those times.

When someone asks you for feedback on a new idea, it is because they see potential in the idea. They think that if improved and nurtured, it can grow and adapt and become something great.

When someone asks for feedback, they're saying, Will you help me make this better? and oftentimes we hear, Can you tell me if this is good or bad?

It's a complete mismatch.

When someone asks you for feedback on a new idea, assume that they want your help improving it, not choosing it. They've already chosen it.

Now that doesn't mean you only give praise. Read on, oh impatient one.

Ideas Are Like Babies

No idea is perfect from the onset. Ideas must adapt and transform to meet the world, just like babies.

And, just like babies, newborn fledgling ideas require more nurturing and praise, and as they mature, harder more pointed forms of feedback.

Here's one framework we use to help individuals in innovation projects deliver feedback to improve ideas.

A B C Delta

Which stands for Appreciate, Build, Challenge, and Change

Delta, in Greek δ, often stands in for the word 'change' in Math.

With a mnemonic and an ancient Greek reference this acronym ought to stick : )


When someone asks for feedback on a new idea, start with what you appreciate about the idea.

Tell them what's good about it. What are the idea's strengths? What is elegant or interesting about it? What do you appreciate about the idea?

We often assume the other person knows the best part of an idea, but this isn't often the case. You should tell someone what you believe is strong in their idea, especially since you know they'll be adapting and changing the idea. The strengths are what they should seek to retain as the idea changes.


Build on the person's idea.

What else can this idea do? How else might it be useful? Where does it have potential that might not be obvious? What new idea can you lend that fits in with this one?

Building on an idea and pointing out potential demonstrates to the person receiving feedback that you care about the idea, because you see potential in it too. This is where you win their trust. Now, be kind as we step into...


How might you challenge the idea?

As babies grow we challenge them to achieve more and more. Challenge drives growth and improvement. So it goes with ideas.

Tell the person how you might challenge the idea. How might you make this less expensive? How might you do this differently than it's been done in the past? Those two should cover about 95% of anything anyone has said in meetings by playing the Devil's advocate.

Go beyond that.

Challenge them to think bigger, challenge them to target the idea to audiences they hadn't considered, challenge them to solve the tough technical problems that might stand in the way, and remember to phrase your challenges as questions. Saying, It's too complicated to use. is not as helpful as asking, How might you make this simpler for users?

Also, if you have an idea for how to overcome a challenge you've identified for them, offer it up.


Finally, are there things you might change about the idea?

This is where a pivot fits in, where transformation can be suggested. If there's anything you would change about the idea, offer that up as feedback. Sometimes a good idea is one change away from having an incredible impact. Be bold when you offer up changes, and if the person listening is brave they might even take up your offer.

The Angel's Advocate

One of our team members, Maggie, talks about playing the Angel's advocate. In workshops there's often an audible, Oohh as the concept of feedback as a gift sinks in.

It's really quite amazing what happens when you make this shift.

We wish you good fortune on your innovation efforts!

Until next time...