The power of short feedback cycles

Getting feedback quickly is important in any creative undertaking. If there’s a long time between making a tweak, and seeing the results that change has on the output, feedback can end up as the bottleneck for how fast you can work while maintaining quality.

Take a potter’s wheel for example. You start with a spinning lump of wet clay, and as you begin to shape it with your hands, you get instant feedback—both tactile and visual—about the effect your hands are having on the form as it takes shape. If you make a change that sends things out of balance, you can instantly correct it and take things in a better direction instead.

As you start to introduce more tools in-between your hands and your material, introduce layers of abstraction in the form of planning and prototypes, and even introduce different individual roles (or whole departments!) that sit in-between the person who does the direction and the person who executes the result—things start to go off the rails in direct proportion to the length of the feedback loop.

The sketch you thought looked great on paper looks clunky when seen as a 3D printed prototype. That really clever algorithm you wrote doesn’t even compile. The change you made to the font size gives all the paragraphs later in the documentorphaned words. Your quadcopter crashes because the image of the tree branch was delayed by 500ms on its way from the camera to your video monitor.

There might be a limit to how short we can make the cycle for our specific field of work, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to get as close to that limit as possible. The shorter we can get the feedback cycle, the more expressive and prolific we can be.

If you consider yourself a maker of tools (I’m looking at you, software people), you need to think very long and hard about whether the tool you’re building puts the creator further away from their material, or helps them be more in touch with it. Is the feedback cycle shorter by adding your tool into the mix, or is it longer?

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