If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
Henry Ford didn't actually say this, I know. But I still find it floating across my mind more frequently as we move further into the alleged social media revolution.
Share your comments below. Fill out our survey. 'Like' this if you agree. Email us your comments. From our private lives to our business decisions, we have become obsessed with the opinions of others - what we like to call "feedback." It's gone beyond a trend, I fear - it's more or less a cultural norm at this point. It is, I think, the dark side of this so-called revolution, or at least one of its dark sides.
I can think of a variety of reasons this isn't ideal for our personal lives, but for the moment let's focus on our business decisions. And let's ask ourselves the unthinkable question: When shouldn't we care about feedback?
I can certainly think of times when we should care: If you are pondering putting a new product in the marketplace and need to know whether prospective customers would want it, if you have a product in the marketplace and need to know how customers are using it, or if you are considering removing an aging product from the marketplace and need to know how much customers would miss it, these are all good times to ask for feedback.
I'm oversimplifying here in a few ways, not least of which is equating things like tweets, Instagram photos, and Facebook "likes" to useful and actionable customer feedback. Often those aren't the same, and not by a longshot. I'm amazed, in fact, at the amount of organizational resources aimed at the opinions of the uninvolved, just because those opinions happen to be expressed on a popular website rather than screamed at uninterested passers-by on the busy corner of a major city during rush hour.
I digress. My point here is that in many situations, feedback -- be it the useful and actionable kind, the social media kind, or both -- isn't actually productive at all. That's right, your opinion doesn't matter -- and neither does mine, in at least four scenarios I can think of off the top of my head:
First, feedback has limited use when it comes to innovation. Had Henry Ford actually said those words popularly attributed to him, he would have had a point. The majority of customers -- the Facebook users of the time, if there were such a thing -- wouldn't have been able to foresee the product he created.
You can certainly argue, as does the Harvard Business Review post I referenced above, that he failed to respond to market forces later on. But in the initial stages of coming up with the innovation, Ford, Jobs, Gates, and the like wouldn't have been well served by surfing the horse-drawn internet and seeking opinions from the masses. Most of the masses couldn't have conceived of what these innovators ended up creating, much less could they have asked for it.
Second, feedback is of questionable value in the context of learning and behavior change. It's tremendously popular, I know, to ask departing students of all ages to comment upon how much they enjoyed a given training program or class, and how valuable they found it to be. Social media- and web-based survey tools have converted everyone with a PC into a feedback collector.
The problem is, we know fairly conclusively that exiting students' impressions don't correlate to their actual gains. In fact, certain modalities of delivering learning, such as the types of experiential and action learning my firm employs, are famous for lukewarm exit feedback coupled with stellar behavior change results.
In other words, people leave saying the experience wasn't that great, then go on to make the exact behavior change it was designed to elicit -- often without realizing they've done it. While this approach fares poorly on Twitter, from the perspective of the entity funding the activity, it's far preferable to a well-loved event that doesn't change anything -- or at least not anything beyond the level of positivity in the Twittersphere.
Third, feedback can be downright detrimental when it comes to the execution phase of projects and programs. Is it useful to ask customers what they want when designing a product? Certainly. But is it useful to invite prospective customers (and everyone else) to comment on the myriad details of the day-to-day implementation of a development program that can span months or even years? Absolutely not. You wouldn't want your most meddling in-law asking questions of your brain surgeon while he worked on you, and you don't need a boundary-free dialogue with customers and fans every day that your company is working on the next important milestone. Check points, yes. Reviews, sure.
But constant conversation interrupts, disrupts, and often presents further challenges, both in the areas of confidentiality and information protection, and in the areas of team morale and cohesiveness: It's difficult to protect what you're developing as you're developing it, and it's nearly impossible to bond around a common purpose when that purpose is open to criticism and adjustment from anyone at any time.
Finally, feedback ranges from useless to counterproductive when it comes to changing beliefs or opinions. Deeply held convictions can certainly be wrong, but the path to changing them never involves clever (or not-so-clever) quips or rebukes delivered publicly. If you really want to change someone's mind, your best bet is to begin by avoiding any action that will encourage them to dig their heels in on their current position -- which, in the context of social media, means staying off of it completely. Public tit-for-tat arguments create drama and entertainment, but that's about the only thing they create.
None of these, of course, are new or groundbreaking truths. But somehow, in our recent obsession with the false notoriety promised by social media's popularity, we've forgotten them. Let's remember them together now; let's not let the trendiness of social media lead us to seek feedback when we don't need it, or from whom we don't need it, or for reasons we don't need it.
After all, wasting time is still wasting time, no matter what exciting new technology comes along to encourage us to do it.
Of course, if you disagree, I want to hear from you. Share your opinion in the comments below, preferably in disrespectful tones and/or ALL CAPS. Let's see if anything changes.