BL&T No. 014: Understanding Feedback Before Acting on Feedback

Ways of Working

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"... if you are in the public eye, you can’t pick and choose how seriously people take something you say. The hard leadership lesson that I’ve learned over and over again is that there is always accountability and people cannot… As much as you might want them to, people are not inside your brain, understanding the nuances of what you meant."

Jon Meachum on Dare to Lead Podcast: Brené with Jon Meachum on the Soul of America


Last week, we presented initial design directions for a new client. Unfortunately, it didn't go as planned. The lead designer on the project reached out to share this with me after their presentation. They could tell the client wasn't enthusiastic and wanted to get ahead of any potential problems.

I'm grateful to have talented design leaders within the team that can take on projects autonomously. With that, I've been able to take a step back from the day-to-day of most projects and act as a consultant guiding the team internally. When situations like this occur, my job begins with context gathering.

There were a couple of flags:

  • Stakeholders who were not present in the weeks prior joined the presentation.
  • The client seemed to have an allergic reaction to a word used in describing the first design direction.

This wasn’t enough to act on. We crafted an email to the client suggesting a call. The next day, we received the email we were hoping to avoid: "We're concerned with where this project is going.”

The stress often prompted by an email like this is never worth it. It's also too early to spend time working on solutions when we don't fully understand the problem. Instead, I try to focus the team on where we went wrong before we jump to conclusions or solutions. The question I ask first is: Did we fail to capture the client's vision, or did we succeed in capturing the wrong one?

The answer has very different implications. When a client is working with an agency for the first time, both can be alarming, but the remedy is easier for one than the other.

  • Scenario #1: Failing to capture the client's vision: This scenario means that there is an alignment between the client and the agency on the vision. The agency thinks they've executed it, but the client disagrees, which is a cause for concern by both parties. The client might start questioning the agency's skill or taste. "Do they really think this is cutting-edge design?" From the agency's perspective, they put a lot of time in to understand the client and thought they nailed it. The next steps are challenging because the agency not only needs to re-align on what the client's vision looks like but also restore trust, and often, start from scratch on a new direction or two. This can lead to timeline delays and eat away at profitability.
  • Scenario #2: Successfully capturing the wrong vision: If I had to pick, I'd always choose this scenario. It also means that the client is unhappy with the work because it doesn't capture their vision. The difference is that the agency was executing on the wrong vision entirely. If the agency and client can agree that the design is successful in interpreting that vision, it's okay to be in this situation, and in the end, the work tends to be better. The client still has confidence in the agency's ability, and the next steps are focused on vision re-alignment. The agency can often move on with the planned revision round and leverage pieces of the original design directions.

I'm happy to report that the latter scenario was the case. We jumped on a call with the client to talk through their thoughts. It turns out that they missed the email sent after the meeting. We were honest - we missed the mark, but what went wrong?

Sure enough, it was partially the word used in the presentation. To them, it was not at all in line with their vision and threw off the rest of the presentation. We were glad to hear that the client liked much of the second concept. We listened as they explained where they wanted to take it. We looked at some additional design references and elements from their brand that they wanted to incorporate. We ended the call with a live design workshop on Zoom, and together, we were able to get the designs going in the right direction. Crisis averted.

Lesson? There's always more to feedback than we perceive. As the receiver, it's our job not to act until we understand. With understanding, we'll likely find that our actions change, and we're in a better place than we thought.

Thought Starter

When have I acted impulsively on feedback only to find my interpretation to be incorrect?

Join My Newsletter

Every Monday, I share weekly themes and progress in running an agency business/team and doing my best to live a good life. Details