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An Effective Critiquing Process

As the founder of three major Training and Development Departments (Mervyn's Department Stores, Atari Corporation, and Activision) I developed these techniques as a way of modeling effective management behaviors. Then as a product development executive in my own and other software development companies I was able to put these concepts to work with great success (every project was completed with 100% team member retention over a 25 year period).

As learning facilitators (teachers, leaders, mentors, etc.) we spend a great amount of time and energy “critiquing” the behaviors of those we are responsible to and for. It is critical that these efforts not be wasted, that they result in behaviors that help us meet our stated objectives and therefore help the organization meet its goals.

A perfect analogy to the process of encouraging desired behaviors and discouraging undesired behaviors, can be the process of critiquing presentations and speeches. This process can be effective within organizations, or as a part of training programs and workshops. By using the correct process during these times, we can model the most effective management behavior, thereby facilitating the participants’ learning.

The complete process is built around the dual concepts of: 1) What Worked, and 2) What I Would Do Differently. While the process itself may be familiar to many of you, the reasons presented for using it may provide some additional insights.

It is important not to assume we understand why we talk about What Worked. It is often assumed the What Worked phase is used as a self-esteem building tool, a way of providing “positive reinforcement” to the presenter (or team member). This assumption is not correct and in fact, when believed, leads to behaviors that are extremely counter-productive.

We tell the presenter What Worked for only one reason: so those behaviors will be repeated. Most people are very interested in pleasing others, so they can get the recognition and approval they desire, especially from the “person in charge.” They will go to great lengths to discover what they must do to get this approval/recognition. Because of this tendency, there is an excellent chance they will change anything they don’t know is working. It is obvious we don’t want them to change behaviors that are working; therefore, it is critical to tell them what is working so they will continue exhibiting those behaviors.

The corollary that naturally leads from this is: we never support, affirm, or encourage behavior we do not want repeated. This is the grave danger that follows from the common misunderstanding that we tell people What Worked to enhance self-esteem, to give positive reinforcement. This usually happens when we are led to believe it is productive to encourage less than desirable behaviors. This is never true within organizations.

A facilitator handles the critiquing process, including the listing of the What Worked items on the white (or black) board. It is permissible for the session leader to take on this role; however, any person with “position power” needs to be very sensitive to the group and make sure all opinions are being heard. There are specific behaviors that an experienced facilitator will exhibit (effective paraphrasing and excellent observation skills among them) that I will not cover in this essay.

What Worked

In the critiquing process, the What Worked phase comes first.

Before the presentation begins, the facilitator explains to the participants that they will be looking at What Worked first and that during the presentation they should be taking notes to remind themselves which things are working particularly well for them. They also want to note what isn’t working, what they would do differently. These notes can be either content or process related; the information presented that they found particularly valuable, and what process issues or presenter behaviors were effective for them.

Every participant should take part in the critiquing process. This is true even if other participants have already brought up the points they wanted to make. It is very important that the individual being critiqued hear/learn that others support a position taken by another participant. This adds credibility to the position and the necessity to take it seriously. Remember, each participant is only giving their opinion; the presenter has every right to ignore any of these opinions, to decide whether of not the suggestion is relevant to their situation. For many of us, this is particularly true when it comes to What Worked. We want to discount the “compliment,” to believe that “they’re just being nice.” Sometimes it’s more difficult to hear what we did well than to hear how we might have done things differently.

It is also permissible to ask the presenter to list what they believed worked particularly well. Some will have an easier time with this than others. Many of us have been told since early childhood that it isn’t nice to “brag on yourself.” I don’t insist on the presenter doing this part of the process, especially when the group is new and the participants don’t know each other, or the session leader, well.

This is the order of events: The presenter goes first, telling What Worked for them. Then the group shares their opinions, followed by the facilitator. The session leader goes last, mentioning any issues not covered, and emphasizing those of significant value. This same process is followed during the Do Differently phase.

I usually assign another participant the task of transcribing the list of What Worked and What I Would Do Differently. The transcribed list is then given directly to the presenter. If the presenter is forced to focus on transcribing the comments there is a good chance they will miss an important response. In addition to this, there is also the chance that the presenter will unconsciously filter the comments to support their beliefs about how the presentation went. While they might do this anyway … at least the comments are given to them in their complete form.

Once the What Worked phase has been completed we move directly into the What I Would Do Differently (Do Differently).

It is critical that the entire group understand the importance of thinking about this as what the individual student could have Done Differently, and not what should have been done. This is important for the student presenter so they are freer to hear the criticism, and it is important for the criticizer to understand they are only giving their opinion and not spouting the wisdom of the ages.

NOTE: Regarding the use of the word criticism. This is a matter of personal responsibility. This is criticism (a rose by any other name), and it would be wrong not to accept the responsibility inherent in the process. This is the main reason I dislike the phrase “constructive criticism.” This is a cop-out phrase akin to the parent saying, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” Essentially a person using this phrase is saying, “I’m only telling you this for your own good; if it hurts, that’s your problem, not mine.” When one does this, they are refusing to accept responsibility for the result of their actions. As mature individuals, we must always accept responsibility for our behavior.  We may well decide that this information needs to be shared; however, we must do this with full knowledge of the impact this sharing may have, and the willingness to accept the responsibility for the result.

NOTE: One of the most difficult, yet essential skills that leaders need to learn is the ability to determine the difference between doing things differently and doing things wrong. Many believe, in their heart of hearts, that their way is the right way and any other way is wrong. This attitude is counter-productive to the development of effective teams, to the ultimate accomplishment of the task, in fact, to the concept of effective leadership in general. The process of critiquing described in this paper leads directly to more effective leadership behaviors.

What I Would Do Differently

The facilitator explains to the group that we are now ready for the Do Differently.

The group is encouraged to stay away from phrases like, “What you should have done is …” or “The right way to do that is …” Instead, they are asked to say, “I would have …” For example, if the PowerPoint slides had a busy background, the critique might be phrased like this: “I found the background to be distracting. I would have used a solid color, like a very light blue or green … maybe even white.”

It should be noted that this phrasing not only makes it easier for the presenter to “hear” the criticism, it also makes it easier for others to disagree, i.e., “I loved the background, it provided a level of interest that kept me focused on the content.”

When an individual is determined to tell the presenter what they did wrong, the facilitator can paraphrase the statement correctly, get confirmation that the meaning is still intact, and then list it correctly on the board. I have found some individuals are incapable of giving criticism without making it clear they are sharing the correct way it should be done, not just their opinion.

The entire group is strongly encouraged to participate; however, it is more difficult for some to find behaviors they would Do Differently than it is for others. I don’t push it to hard, especially in the beginning; usually before the end of the course, they have become comfortable with giving effective criticism.

This process is extremely valuable because it not only provides the most effective feedback for the presenter; it also models effective management/leadership behavior.

Copyright 2002, Brad Fregger