Pushback Leads to Greatness.

As a creative team, we collaborate. A lot. Creative collaboration is part of our DNA — which lends itself to the necessity of feedback — or for the sake of this article, pushback.

Yes, there is a distinction, as I’ve learned through the years of running this company. Feedback tends to be more passive. It usually starts with a qualifying statement like, “Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but…” or “This may be a terrible idea, but…”

I can see you nodding through the screen right now. You do that. I do that. We all do that. We qualify/disqualify feedback because we’re afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. We’re afraid it may be taken the wrong way. We’re unsure of how it’ll be received so we make sure we create a buffer, just in case.

And it doesn’t work. Or at least, it doesn’t lead to real, honest-to-goodness breakthrough. It doesn’t allow you to work through challenges and obstacles to get the final product to the best possible place. Most importantly, it rarely ends with high-fives and fist-bumps. And a world without high-fives and fist-bumps is no world at all.

Which is why pushback is a must in the creative process. Pushback is the most direct path to positive collaboration. Pushback is how you create greatness.

As aptly stated by Barrett Brooks, who recently took away the concept of pushback vs. feedback after spending a couple weeks working with Seth Godin’s team:

“…Push back is how great teams, great leaders, and great shippers make things happen. They collaborate to create the best possible work of art within the given time constraints. Some people call push back “feedback.” Feedback is fine, but it’s often passive and weak. Feedback is asking for the minimum necessary input from another person in order for them to feel like they contributed.

Push back, however, is the opposite. Push back happens when intelligent people give 110% of their energy and attention to solving a single problem. It happens when one person stands up and puts an idea on the table and then a committed team picks it apart, reassembles it, and drops the mic when they realize just how good it has become. Push back is how you create greatness. But it has to be about the work…”

How to create a culture of positive pushback

Pushback, which really is feedback in its most raw, honest form, isn’t an easy thing to give or receive. Humans do have feelings. Chivalry isn’t dead and yes, being polite matters. So here are a few things to keep in mind as you build a “safe place” within your own culture that welcomes pushback:

1. Know that pushback comes from a place of love. Teams that win are unselfish. They support each other and the work together. Pushback can feel harsh, but when you’re clear and transparent that the common goal is making the final product the best it can possibly be (which should always be the case), it breaks down your natural, defensive barrier.

2. (Always) make it about the work. Barrett makes this point clear in the article referenced above. Pushback absolutely, positively must be about the work. Throwing in an, “Oh by the way, you smell really bad today”, to drive home how much you dislike a logo design really isn’t helping anyone, is it? (That was a rhetorical question, friends). In other words, no dickheads allowed. Make it about the work — always.

3. Start and end with a positive. Ah yes, the good old “sandwich technique”. You know, “Hey honey, you’re a great wife, but when you don’t take out the garbage, you disrespect me, but, I love you and you’re great with the kids”. OK, that sounds like a pretty terrible relationship, but the principle can very much be applied to creative pushback. It’s natural to look at something and immediately dive into criticism (I’m as guilty of anyone here). Start by finding the positive — lead with that, then work through your honest pushback before ending with some positive reinforcement. While you shouldn’t be afraid to hold back on your critique, you also shouldn’t hold back on maintaining positivity.

4. Be honest. Honesty is key. Pushback that leads to positive collaboration and great results doesn’t work if it isn’t honest. Take everything above into consideration and say what you want to say. Be prepared for pushback from other individuals and perspectives, too. When the roles switch and you’re the one receiving feedback, remember all of the principles outlined here.

We’re headed away to Vision Quest this week (our twice-a-year company retreat sans trust-falls) and building trust around positive collaboration and pushback is one of our primary focuses. We collaborate every single day and there’s still plenty of work we can do to openly welcome pushback into our day-to-day.

When it comes from a place of love, when it’s about the work, when you maintain positivity and honesty, pushback is the most direct path to positive collaboration. Pushback is how you create greatness.

High-fives and fist-bumps included.

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