The Key to Moving Fast Is Feedback

The last time I went to the dentist to get a cavity filled, I got a shot of Novocain as a local anesthetic to numb the area. After I emerged from the dental chair, I still had no feeling in my lip and mouth area. Trying to talk and smile was comical. Trying to drink tea resulting in dribbles down my face. Luckily, the loss of feeling only lasted a couple hours. Soon, I was back to normal. Even in this small and common scenario, we can see the close link between motion and sensory perception. What would happen if you couldn’t feel your whole body?

This is exactly what happened in the tragic and amazing story of Ian Watermann. At age 19, he had what appeared to be the flu, but was actually a rare disease of the nervous system that left him unable to feel any sensation of touch below the neck. Unable to process this sensory information, he was totally unable to walk or move his body. This is despite the fact that his motor system was left almost untouched by the disease. He had the capacity to move, but without the sensory feedback he was paralyzed.

Ian was told that he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, but in an inspiring show of determination he recovered mobility. With the help of physiotherapists, he retrained his brain to substitute visual feedback for touch feedback. He could move his hands and legs while he could see them. Finally, he could walk again with his sight and concentration. If the visual feedback is taken away, (lights turned off), the ability to move vanishes.

Feedback is the essential ingredient for human motion. But what about businesses, startups, and software projects? One of the challenges that all of these face is the ability to move fast. This ability to move is not unlike that in our own bodies. Movement and action are a result of a complex, interdependent system. In the case of businesses, they are made of people, technology, and processes. Like the human body, it is critically dependent on feedback. A business can have the capacity for action, but without the ability to process feedback it is essentially immobilized.

If you want to move fast, single most important thing you can do is to improve your feedback at every level.

If you want to add new technology, ask how it improves your feedback.

  • Feedback from the market
  • Feedback from your users
  • Feedback from your operational systems
  • Feedback from your code
  • Feedback from your employees
  • Feedback from yourself

The best feedback systems are distributed and multi-layered. A single market feedback signal to the CEO is good, but much better is one that gets shared among the many facets of a company. A distributed and interconnected network of feedback will help companies and projects be responsive, fast, nimble, and resilient.

The next time you hear, “How can we go faster”?“ ask the question “How can we increase feedback?” You’ll be on the right track to fly.

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