Iteration is a poor model for feedback

Published on 2022-11-08 by John Collins.

As an ex-engineer who is now a manager, I’ve become aware that my engineering training does not work well for giving feedback to people.

Engineers are trained to solve problems via iteration. It works like this:

  1. Attempt to fix the issue.
  2. Review that latest attempt.
  3. If the fix is acceptable, you are done.
  4. If it is not, go back to step 1 and try a different approach (iterate).

Since the days of Thomas Edison taking thousands of attempts to perfect his light bulb, engineers have been taking this practical approach with good success.

However it is also tremendously inefficient.

During my computer science studies at university, I was told to avoiding excessive iterations (“looping”) in my code, as this is inefficient from a performance perspective. The trick is to break from the loop as soon as you find the right solution, but how do you determine the right one?

The same is true when giving feedback to people. I have had many ex-engineers as my managers, and they often exhibited this habit when giving me feedback:

  1. I present what I think they want.
  2. They tell me it’s not quite right, and give some subtle feedback.
  3. I iterate again until eventually they are happy.

Sound familiar? I always grew frustrated with this approach: why can’t he/her just tell me what they want, and I will work towards that rather than all of this guess work?

I am often reminded of the following quote on Edison’s approach by Nikola Tesla:

"His [Thomas Edison] method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 per cent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor's instinct and practical American sense. In view of this, the truly prodigious amount of his actual accomplishments is little short of a miracle."