The gift of criticism

That moment when your manager says, ‘Can I just have a quick word?’ and you feel cold creeping dread. Most of us have had that sinking feeling: a fear of criticism or negative feedback. And it can feel as tough to give it as it can to receive it.

According to psychologists we feel anxious when we receive criticism, because at a basic level our brains interpret criticism as a primal threat to our sense of belonging and survival.

Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University, showed in his research that our brains process negative feedback more thoroughly than positive feedback. This means that receiving criticism has a greater impact on us than receiving praise.

Many managers avoid giving negative feedback by skirting round the issue, avoiding it altogether, or even worse (in my opinion) offering the recipient what is commonly called a sh!t sandwich (that’s sandwiching negative feedback in between two glowing positive pieces of feedback). The typical outcome is that the giver thinks they have communicated negative feedback clearly and the receiver has no idea they have even been given any!

As a manager, part of your job is to offer up negative feedback, or criticism in a constructive way, because unless people receive this sort of feedback they cannot learn and grow.

10 tips for giving the gift of criticism

  1. Start with why: be clear in your own mind as to why you are giving negative feedback first, and then be clear with the person you are giving the feedback to.
  2. Specific: if you talk generally the receiver is unlikely to understand or agree. For example, don’t say, ‘I don’t think your performance is good enough’ describe the specific situation, ‘You have been late four times this week’.
  3. Understand: get to the root cause. There might be something else happening for the receiver that is causing under performance. If you can understand what is really going on you can then work with them on a solution.
  4. Situation not person: focus on the task in hand and don’t make it personal.
  5. Purpose: it can help to refer back to the contribution your employee makes to the bigger picture, the impact of their poor performance, and the benefit of changing. For example, ‘If you are not there on time, customers have to wait, this is a bad experience and impacts on the bottom line’.
  6. Candid and kind: we are all fragile human beings. Be clear and kind in your delivery of criticism.
  7. Timely: don’t wait for the next 1:1. Provide the critique as soon as you can. (The timely tip also applies to giving positive feedback)
  8. It’s a conversation: ask them how they thought the thing in question went, and ask for the good feedback first. Then ask what they might improve next time. This helps to make a two-way conversation and helps your employee to own the situation.
  9. Make it a habit: constructive criticism shouldn’t be a thing that people fear. A learning culture relies on continuous feedback. Build an evaluation and reflection into every project. This could be as simple as discussing what worked, what didn’t and what you will do differently next time.
  10. Lead by example: share you own learnings from negative feedback. For example, failure and feedback are important parts of the innovation culture that I help organsiations to develop. So I share my failures, one example being early on in my career I asked internal teams for ideas without being clear on the problem. As a result of my poor brief I was inundated with irrelevant ideas that I then had to quash. That was a hard-earned failure and as a result I don’t let my clients who are developing their innovation cultures make the same mistake that I did.

While giving negative feedback can feel awkward, it’s an essential part of a managers role. Without honest feedback your teams will not be able to improve, learn or grow. Become known as the manager that challenges their team to be the best they can by reliably giving feedback. Reframe giving negative feedback in your own mind as helping your team to shine. The growth of your employees and the ongoing success of your business and your own career depend on it.

This blog was first published at People Management. 

Successful innovators might have ‘toddler syndrome’

If you have ever spent more than three minutes with a toddler it is extremely likely that they will have asked you the short and sweet question, ‘Why?’

Toddlers are learning about their world, testing boundaries and have no fear or filters when asking questions (I recently overheard a toddler on a bus pointing at a well-built gentleman and asking their mum “Mummy why is that man so FAT?” Their mum was mortified, the other people on the bus found it hysterical and embarrassing in equal measure and the well-built gentlemen was apparently deaf).

Just to be clear toddler syndrome is not a licence to offend other people. Toddler syndrome is the fearless ability and energy to keep asking ‘Why?’. To challenge ‘the way things are done round here’, in order to continuously seek out a better or more effective way of doing things.

Have you ever got to the end of a project and thought, ‘If only we had asked them x’ or ‘I wish we’d thought about y’ or ‘Wouldn’t it have been great if we had known z’.

I know I have.

Because we are up against deadlines and conflicting priorities it can be hard to take a step back and really think deeply about the best way to do an activity.

We don’t ask enough questions. Either because we are too busy, or we assume that our questions are not welcome or that we simply don’t have permission to ask.

Whatever your role, you can play a vital role in challenging the status quo and ask ‘Why?’ more to develop better customer relationships, better products and services and therefore better business results.

Often we can feel that we don’t know enough about a topic to ask meaningful questions. That is entirely the point. When we know less about a topic, we have a different perspective and it’s our different viewpoint that enables us to ask questions that people fully immersed in the topic are simply not able to ask.

Let me share an example from Southwest Airlines.

Some years ago Southwest Airlines ran a programme that included people from in-flight, ground, maintenance, and dispatch operations. For six months they met for 10 hours a week, brainstorming ideas to address the broad issue: ‘What are the highest-impact changes we can make to our aircraft operations?’

At the end of the six months the group presented 109 ideas to senior management, three of which involved sweeping operational changes. Chief Information Officer Tom Nealon said that the diversity of the people on the team was crucial, mentioning one director from the airline’s schedule planning division in particular. “He had almost a naive perspective, his questions were so fundamental they challenged the guys had worked on for the last 30 years.”

Southwest Airlines approach put them in the top 20 on the innovators index. Check out some of the innovations that they have implemented over the years here. 

So next time you are starting on a new project, don’t just accept the usual way of doing things.

  • Give people permission to challenge and ask ‘Why?’
  • Get a diverse group of people together with no experience of the topic to ask the ‘stupid questions’
  • Ask yourself ‘What would SouthWest Airlines do if they were working on this project?

Let me know how you get on and if you’d like some help challenging the status quo and asking ‘why?’ to get better results – then get in touch

Let’s sleep on it

A guest blog by Vanessa Longley. 

What else are you doing while you are reading this blog? I’m guessing you’re doing at least one other activity. Most likely you are scanning this whilst commuting on the train, waiting in-line to pay for petrol or even checking this and your social media updates while sitting on the loo!  Like me, you use these tiny moments, to catch up because there simply isn’t enough time in the day.  In fact, if you’re anything like the average modern worker you always have too much to do and too little time, and that’s before dashing home to feed the dog, thinking about going to the gym, getting the laundry done…and then logging-on again to finish that final report.  And in the meantime your boss is telling you that the organisation needs to be more innovative, and that you need to be more creative…

…so exactly when are you going to fit that in?

We know that the busier you are, the harder it is to be creative. In fact, research by Teresa Amabile (2002) shows a single crazy busy day can inhibit creativity for at least the two following days, and sometimes a lot longer. So wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow use our spare time when we are asleep to help boost our ability to be creative when we’re awake.  Well if you’re someone who likes to say ‘let’s sleep on it’ you are definitely onto something.  Certain types of sleep state where you move between dreaming sleep (called Rapid Eye Movement or REM) and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep has been shown to increase fluency, flexibility and originality of thought.  Though we don’t yet know exactly how this works, the research suggests that:  “sleep…may enhance the ability of people to access the remote associations that are critical for creative innovations” (Drago et al, 2010).

Creativity ‘vs’ usefulness

That’s all very well, but some of the obscure dreams we have about tap dancing dragons or such might not seem particularly useful for work – even if it’s very creative!  But, this creativity generated in sleep can help us during the day with real problems.  In 1869 the chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev, was struggling to find a way to order the elements.  He knew what the problem was, he just couldn’t find the creative solution. Until in a dream he saw the elements of the universe arranged like a beautiful melody, each element connected and linked to form a harmony. Writing everything down as soon as he awoke, this dream was published as the periodic table we all remember from chemistry class. Mendeleev’s vision was accurate enough to survive centuries of scientific examination and, whilst newly discovered elements have been added, the periodic table remains exactly as he dreamt.

There are countless stories of insights in sleep solving the problems of the waking world, from pro-golfer Jack Nicklaus dreaming a new way to hold his golf club and using this to win big, to Frederick Banting dreaming a treatment for managing diabetes in 1920 that we still use today. Banting’s use of insulin allowed children expected to die within days a chance to live a full life – not a bad result from one good night’s sleep!

So how can we dream up new ideas?

Deirdre Barrett’s research published in 2001 shows that we can direct our sleeping brains to work on the problems we want to solve.  Simply by focusing on the issue for five to ten minutes before going to sleep, and writing down your memories of your dreams first thing when you wake up, over 50% of people found creative solutions to their problems.

New research is applying these theories to help busy managers like you.  Researchers from City University of London are working to develop ways for managers to use creativity during sleep to increase creative problem solving whilst we are awake. They are on the lookout for managers willing to answer a simple survey, join in a workshop or test out a new tool designed to make creativity in sleep more useful.

So if you want to get more creative at work by making your sleep more useful, why not offer a couple of those spare moments of time to join in!

Please take a couple of minutes to fill in the survey here before the end of July and as a thank you receive your free guide: ‘9 ways to a better night’s sleep’ on the last page. You can also find out more about the research by emailing:

Vanessa Longley is the Director of Fundraising and Communications at Havens Hospices. In her ‘spare’ time she looks for new ways to bring creativity into everyday working practice…and tries to get a solid 8 hours sleep every night!

Did you fly into work today?

Last month I had the pleasure of speaking to Neil Cloughley, Managing Director and Founder of Faradair®, about the highs and lows of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Neil describes innovation as “finding problems and creating solutions for those problems.”

My key take out is that it’s been a combination of problems, experiences, and stories combined with a steely ability to spot a market opportunity that has led Neil to where he is today.

Neil’s story started when he was a teenager when his dad, Trevor Cloughley built an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) company. This idea was before its time and unfortunately the company could not survive without UK Government interest. Sadly the assets of the business were sold to a group in the USA who were then awarded a contract by the US Government worth $80m. Neil aged 16 promised his dad that he would “finish the work his dad had started.”

Neil built his first career in IT. Back in the late 90’s he had an idea for a tablet computer. He partnered with Siemens, SUN Microsystems and others in 2001 to develop one of the world’s first tablet computers. It would have enabled people to send and receive email on the move from a device smaller than a laptop. Despite being painfully obvious now, fifteen years or more ago it failed to gain traction – again another product before its time. One VC suggested the tablet, which although was “a nice idea would never take off because people had laptops”. In 2004 Apple ‘invented’ the iPad and over 280 million tablets have since been sold since. While frustrating, lessons were learned from both Trevor and Neil’s ‘before their time’ experiences.

When the IT market crashed in 2002 Neil started his second career selling commercial aircraft. (like you do!) It reignited his passion for aviation that he had as a child. He became an expert.

Back to Trevor’s promise

Air travel has changed over the years. There was a time when air travel between cities on a daily basis was relatively common. Small aircraft would shuttle 8-10 passengers communing between cities. Over time the costs, noise and emissions increased making this sort of commuter travel untenable and the UK is now solely reliant on its overcrowded and expensive road and rail networks for this type of travel.

For commuters this means extortionate prices to travel in the UK and at the same time a disconnect as the cost of plane travel overseas becomes cheaper. How is it that you can travel to Sweden for just £16.99 with a low-cost airline but to get from Cardiff in Wales to London and back at peak time and its £225? And a lot of the time you don’t even get a seat!

So in 2014, Neil set up Faradair, an aviation company to solve three fundamental problems facing regional flight – noise, emissions and operational costs, to make life better for commuters and the businesses they serve and to keep his promise to his dad to “finish what he started”.

Looking at problems differently

Faradair decided to look at the problems of noise, emissions and operational costs differently. The greatest fuel consumption happens at take-off, so Faradair has created a hybrid aircraft that uses quiet electric motors for take off. The engine takes over for the flight and the electric battery recharges over the duration of the flight all ready for the next take off.

The aircraft looks unusual because it has three wings. This is to reduce the take off and landing space required so there is more flexibility for take offs and landing in urban areas and using small airstrips.

Using techniques developed by NASA and other research groups they have designed a shroud/duct around the engine fan/propeller to reduce noise. The combination of a slow spinning fan and electric motors for take-off enables the aircraft to be ultra-quiet.

Faradair call their aircraft BEHA – Bio-Electric-Hybrid-Aircraft. In plain English it means it’s a quiet, economical, low emission aircraft, that seats 6-8 people. It’s a viable form of regional transportation with ultimate intention to build a larger 20-30 seat version in the future.

By the end of 2016, Faradair had won two business awards including one for Innovation, secured initial angel investment, added key personnel to the team to enable the development of a prototype to prove that the BEHA does deliver the efficient, quiet and cost-effective flight that it promises.

“I was so proud to be on stage receiving an award with my dad, because it was recognition of what he started, but his technology was just 20 years too early” Neil Cloughley Director and Founder, Faradair

Credit: Rob Lacey

Challenges and opportunities

“It’s taken two years to get this far and it often feels like you take two steps forward just to take a step back” Neil Cloughley Director and Founder, Faradair

Despite an expert, well-respected and connected team Faradair has struggled to attract the large investment it needs to move to prototyping. Venture Capitalists perhaps don’t know or understand the aviation market and the BEHA development time may be longer than their funds allow. There is also, in the minds of investors uncertainty about the long-term investment needed to get off the ground (no pun intended). However Faradair has mitigated some of this with the development of a new hybrid aircraft engine that will be available to be sold to other aircraft owners and manufacturers in the near future.

The Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) is responsible for funding, developing and maintaining the UK’s prominence in the aerospace sector, yet Faradair is out of scope for most grant funding criteria because they are not working with or part of the commercial aviation supply chain for the big ‘Tier 1’ aviation companies.

It strikes me that there is an irony that to apply for a grant to innovate you have to already be working with one of the incumbent giants that already define ‘how things are done’ leaving limited scope for different thinking and innovation to flourish.

Another big challenge for Faradair is that the UK does not resource aviation in the same way that other countries do. After months of perseverance, Faradair finally secured a meeting with minister for Aviation on May the 4th. A general election was called and all departments closed on May the 3rd and now the process starts again as Faradair must build new relationships with the new Government aviation personnel. Neil says “MPs talk about supporting SMEs but in our experience, when it actually comes to it they do not follow through with their promises to ensure that the civil servants are delivering the funds where they are needed most”.

“We’ve had fantastically supportive angel investment and we’ve also had to beg and borrow from friends and family. It’s not easy.”

Convincing the first person, finding your first follower, as David Sivers outlines in dancing guy, transforms the ‘lone nut’ into a leader. The first follower is the flint that ignites the leaders ideas into a fire.

I don’t believe that Neil is a lone nut, but when you are trying to drive significant change in a sector with some well established big players it can feel like it.

However where one door is sticky to open, other opportunities present themselves.

Whilst the BEHA was initially designed for regional flights for people between cities, it’s flight characteristics and capabilities are now opening new market opportunities, for example, to aid conservation efforts in combating poachers and tracking wildlife, air taxi services for organisations, hotels, resorts and government organisations, police and emergency service operations, light freight/utility cargo operations during unsocial hours and many more roles.

5 tips to succeed at innovation

Neil’s advice from his experience when it comes to innovation is;

  • Be absolutely clear on what you are trying to achieve and what is being asked from you. Get it in writing in black and white (email is fine). Ensure both parties agree so there is no room for misunderstandings.
  • Allow time because the most important things can come from the most bizarre angle. To spot those lucrative opportunities that come from left field you need time. If you are asked to come up with something by 3pm tomorrow, you might be able to deliver something but it’s not likely to be the best solution.
  • You need investment – innovation is hugely enjoyable and a lot easier without the stress inducing constraints of limited time and no budget.
  • If you have identified a valid problem, there is an inherent urgency in solving it. Some innovation companies never deliver anything. We need to be looking up to the horizon in terms of timing – not beyond the horizon. Depending on the industry you are working in you need to look to deliver within 5 years, not 50.
  • You need resilience – it’s bloody hard.

You can watch more on the story of Faradair here.

How to minimise the risk of innovation

Trying something new can be nerve-wracking at the best of times; nobody knows what the outcome will be. But don’t let the risks prevent you from innovating. The riskiest thing in a changing and uncertain world is to do nothing.

Innovation: we all know we need to innovate but we also crave certainty.

The news is that nothing is certain. And everything is being disrupted. The only real question is ‘when?’

There are risks attached to innovating; doing something new and therefore unproven, but in an uncertain world doing what you’ve always done is also risky. Somehow we convince ourselves that it is safer or more certain to just do more of the same. It’s not.

Innovating around the use of digital channels is one obvious area. But don’t get side-tracked by bright shiny digital bling. Technology in itself is not innovation. Technology is just another channel. No one lives in a purely analogue or digital world. We all use smartphones, laptops, tablets, and apps. We text, snapchat, WhatsApp, speak on the phone, message on Facebook and have real life face-to-face conversations.

The innovation is how you make the experience of being your customer, or supporting your cause an enriching one  and providing inspiring communications that are relevant to your customer or supporter across all the channels that they use.

Organisations that invest in a structured approach to innovation minimise their risk of failure. It’s the dabblers that take a scatter gun approach to developing ideas that are in peril of costly failures.

Five simple tips for minimising risk

1. Have a robust framework for innovation – this in itself will help you to manage risk. (check out The Lucidity Innovation Toolkit over on our FREE STUFF page)

2. Start by really unpicking the problem that you want to solve. Many times I meet organisations that, for example want an app, and when we start to unpick ‘why?’ its not clear. So we go back to basics. Start with the problem.

3. Understand your audience. If you try to innovate without knowing your audience you are taking a big risk. Invest in ways to get insight. You already have some data, my hunch is that you have enough that you can develop some conclusions about your audience that you can then test.

4. Develop ideas about how you solve the problem for your audience. An idea in isolation, which doesn’t solve a problem for your audience is massively risky.

5. Test your idea on a small-scale. Get feedback from your audience. Don’t ask them if they like it, test it – do your audience engage with it?

And finally – take action. The riskiest thing in a changing and uncertain world is to do nothing.

If you’d like some help with your innovation and product development – then drop me a line 

A version of this blog was first published for European Fundraising Association.