Douglas Adams is one of my favorite writers, but he’s probably under-appreciated for his brilliance as a technology enthusiast and futurist.  He’s got a great series called Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Future, which you can listen to in the BBC Archives, in which he discusses the general power of feedback loops to generate change in a system of any sort.  Listening to this, I began thinking about how feedback loops are vitally important to all decision making.  The unappreciated issue in making decisions is the distance (or time) between action and reaction that drives a lot of the disruption in business and education we see around us.

Business Feedback Loops

Before the internet, we had to wait a lot longer between taking an action and seeing a result.  You launch a product, and in the next quarter, half year, or longer, you might finally have enough data to begin to see whether the product was a success or not.  If you get mediocre results,  you might start to consider tweeking the product, but the time between “trial”and “error” or getting an improvement out to the existing customers has been so long, it hardly seemed to matter much.

Now with the internet, you can begin to get almost instantaneous feedback from customers, and go to work almost immediately on your next iteration, if needed.  This can be a blessing and a curse, of course.  You may save money by not having to commit to thousands of units if your item has problems and you find out early, but the pros and cons of your 1st bite at the apple will also haunt you by the spread of reviews, comments, blogs and the rest around the internet.  This would be why limited beta testing and early focus groups are even more valuable to help you sort out details long before official launch.

Keep in mind, early reaction can be misleading.  Think about all those tech folks who said “Who cares about the iPad?  It’s just a big iPod touch- who needs one of those?” Those tech insiders and geeks had to eat their words when they figured out they weren’t the only audience for the thing.  Making choices and reacting too early to the early adopter crowd might lead you to making a big mistake- so it’s important to know which audiences you are speaking to and how important and relevant their feedback is to your overall vision and business.

Implementing Helpful Feedback Loops

The key is to set up feedback loops where you can gauge reaction or impact and adjust course, when necessary, with relative speed rather than waiting years to adjust.

Government, as we all know, is awful in terms of feedback loops.  Once a law or regulation is finally in place, after commentary, reconsideration, input of special interest groups and the like, the final version often has very different effect than what was intended.  Then along comes our old friend, The Doctrine of Unintended Consequences, where real world consequences of decisions and laws turn out to be different than what was initially anticipated or expected.

For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act has a couple of positive and negative unintended consequences.  With the increase in the number of ramps available for wheelchair access to buildings, parents with strollers, delivery men and others have easier access than ever before as well.  The negative consequences come from some folks using the law as a way to do “drive-by” lawsuits for businesses without adequate disabled parking, even for businesses they have never even attempted to visit.

Yet every law, negotiated and put into place to try to solve real world problems will sit, with its good and bad effects.  It will take forever to change it, with yet more compromises, to make sure it works better than it did at the outset. Because of the delay between enactment and action, the legal process moves at a pace that is frustrating and ridiculous at almost all levels, and this lack of responsiveness is part of the underlying frustration we all have with government at all levels.  The feedback loops, from election cycles to implementation of actual laws is so long, it can seem to render the modification moot.

But government is gradually getting with the program.  The State of Delaware has been using Twitter to help keep people informed of road closures and emergencies They also listen to social channels, so they know where there might be an emergency, a snow removal problem, or other issue the State and its employees can address, rather than waiting to hear through more formal channels.  It makes the State gradually more responsive to citizens, especially where it counts- on day to day issues that effect everyone.

Education Feedback Loops

When I was in school, our teacher figured out what we knew by testing us at the end of a unit or chapter.  we might have had a quiz or paper in between.  These data points are pretty far apart, and don’t help a teacher or student assess what they understand or don’t understand when something can be done about it- closer to the point of first learning.  Educators are using simple things like a “thumbs up/thumbs down” to do a quick check on who is following along and who is lost.  They may use “clickers” to take polls and informal assessments even several times during a class period, checking on what kids are getting and what they need more help with along the way.

These immediate feedback loops help keep kids on track, and avoids losing too many kids along the way.  They help a teacher figure out how to adjust her teaching speed to her students, and keep her from “over-teaching” concepts the kids already know.  The shortened feedback loops help make a teacher and a classroom of students more in sync, making sure each does their jobs better over time. Errors and issues can be spotted and corrected quickly, giving everyone a better shot at mastering the material and doing well.

Tweek Your Feedback Loops

The key in business and education is to keep feedback loops coming, and know when you need to adjust your course of action, and when to hold steady.  If you don’t think your marketing is working, ask your customers what they think of it, sooner than later.  How often would they like to hear from you?  What sort of information would be most helpful?  Do they want sales information, education information, or what would they like to see most?  The more you can gear your materials to your clients needs, the more likely you are to get the response you need.  But like any good feedback loop- you have to remember to ask for the feedback and then act on it appropriately.

feedback loops are the key to getting more out of your current actions- tyr playing with them, and see how they work for your business.