Tell Me How I’m Doing, Not What I Did

By Alistair Brett

Innovation feedback loops and networks

In his 2009 book Streetlights and Shadows; Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making, Gary Klein discusses the limits of feedback and the often expressed claim that “to get people to learn, give them feedback on the consequences of their actions.” Klein is a research psychologist renowned for his work in the field of naturalistic decision making; that is, how people make decisions in real circumstances rather than under psychology lab conditions.

Klein notes there are two kinds of feedback that need to be distinguished. “[F]eedback isn't sufficient.... Researchers have found that outcome feedback – knowledge of results – doesn't improve our performance as much as process feedback, which helps us understand how to correct flaws” – how well or how badly we are performing.

Feedback propagates through formal and informal networks. Understanding the impact of feedback is important for enhancing innovative behavior in companies and communities. Innovation emerges from a myriad of interconnected local behaviors of constituent components, apparently spontaneously and in mostly unpredictable ways.

The emergent properties of a network come from the interaction of the network’s components and are not necessarily visible or inherent in any of the network’s individual components. That is, emergence is the situation in which the properties of a system are independent of its components, and thus it is generally not possible to predict the behavior of the systems from the properties or activities of its individual parts.

For example: Emergence may create a new business with capabilities that are not reflected in the interactions of each agent within the system (there would be no IT industry without the re-organization of sand and copper). In a corporation innovative products may emerge from internal transactions, discussions, arguments, and trial and error; in the same way human society works in general. Technologies build on each other. Components may be reused and re-organized.

Emergence can be stimulated by positive feedback. If a new emergent order is creating value it will stabilize itself typically through negative and positive feedback loops.

Positive feedback encourages deviation from the existing state of affairs and subsequent adaptation. Negative feedback reduces deviations from an existing state and acts as a stabilizing force.

Note that “positive” does not mean good and “negative” does not imply bad.

Example: Feedback from customers or potential customers provides essential guidance in new product or service development. It can reduce risk of creating products or services for which there are no markets. It can either encourage bold moves or encourage more modest incremental innovation.

This is not outcome feedback; knowing there is no market for a fully developed product or service is too late. This is Klein’s process feedback allowing us to correct flaws during the development process and through formal and informal development networks.

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