I’ve had a long-term fear of collaboration and gathering feedback when it comes to my work. I project a lot so excuse me if this is not true for you. It is for me.

Some of these patterns are:

  • hubris in the face of uncertainty of what it will take to complete a given task
  • once I’m focused on a task I find it really stimulating, to the point where I’m irritated if someone tries to pull me away from it, or wants me to evaluate my progress
  • when I get the feeling that something’s not right and my efforts aren’t adding up to much value, it’s more comfortable to continue typing away than to confront that fear

I don’t think I’m alone, because I sometimes find myself confronting that fear on behalf of others, saying things like:

“We’ve been going at this for a while, and we’re not necessarily making good progress here. We have two options: we could break this down so that we can assess our progress and share that with others, or we can carry on. It’s ok if we continue as-is if we finish soon. If we don’t finish soon, we’ll have missed the opportunity to get others’ insights and even their help taking over some parts of it, because this is a really important task for the team.”

In the case I’m thinking of, we opted to continue as-is. We took about two weeks longer on something that I thought would be finished in a few days. We were optimistic with no real evidence that we were “almost done”, and assumed that evaluating our progress would be a waste of time. It turns out, not evaluating our progress was the real waste.

Here are some successes that came about as a result of being willing to have meta-conversations and gather feedback.

Conference talk feedback

I recently gave a conference talk. It was a turbulent time of travel and family business, and I was writing and re-writing slides up to the last minute. There was a big possibility that I was about to present something that no other human had reviewed. It always seemed like the wrong time to pause long enough to get some feedback.

Fortunately, many colleagues had offered to participate in a dry-run, and so many colleagues giving conference talks (this is fairly frequent at thoughtbot) asked others to give them feedback. It almost felt like I’d be judged if I did not to ask for help.

I recorded a poor version of the talk and put it on Slack for my colleagues, the day before the talk. I was sleep deprived and spoke very slowly, and at one point flat out lost my train of thought and paused for a full minute while I fumbled a point (hey, better then than in the real thing).

I was afraid that I had foisted something dreadful on others. I need not have been. People have the chance to respond or not. I was surprised by how many people watched the whole thing and commented, but I also had good feedback just from someone who watched a few minutes. One person watched the talk at double speed. I could not have predicted this behaviour, but he took what I was asking for and delivered something useful in a way that worked within his boundaries.

The feedback was really helpful and gave me confidence that I wasn’t about to embarrass myself.

Creating transparency at a client

I joined a team once that was struggling with communicating progress. There was a negative cycle at play: they were afraid to report progress because of perceived hostility; uneasiness that they were in fact behind schedule; it was easier to keep typing code than it was to face that hostility; and the lack of visible reporting created more hostility from the client.

I knew that we needed to communicate the reality of our progress, and fessed up on behalf of the team despite my fears. The conversation was awkward: “You told us two days ago that everything was on track, now you’re telling us that we’re months away from the goal”. But the resulting action from the client was far better than ignoring the issue:

  1. Reassurance that we did have power to prioritise and that many items were not absolutely necessary for the deadline
  2. Substantial help from their internal developers

At the end of the project the client was surprised when I revisited the problems from before this step. They had the launch that they wanted, and all the disfunction before that point seemed to no longer matter.


I think these lessons are visible from the above examples, but they’re also drawn from many such occurrences:

  • It is not for me to assume that others are too busy to reflect with me and give feedback. I can only ask, and they’ll deliver what they can.
  • There’s a huge difference between a collaborative environment like thoughtbot’s and a place where everyone keeps to themselves. At thoughtbot people are likely to ask for help because they’ve seen others ask for help.
  • On any given task, it’s probably not too late to give visibility to others. At worst I understand my own work better, but I may actually get help that makes my work better and faster