The problem with feedback

Back in the 90’s, John Laws lead an ad campaign for Valvoline. It had the catchphrase of “oil ain’t oil”

It focused on the supposed quality and excellence of the oil in much the same way as John West did with salmon.

This focus on quality and excellence had me thinking lately about data and whether in fact ‘data ain’t data’ and that data is not neutral.

In an article for The Atlantic, Megan Ward provides a history of feedback. She touches on the origins associated with improving industrial machine efficiency and focus on finding fault. The problem is that in recent times it has been appropriated as a tool for managing people as a form of human machinery.

Positive ratings are a kind of holy grail on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and negative reviews can sink a burgeoning small business or mom-and-pop restaurant. That shift has created a misunderstanding about how feedback works. The original structure of the loop’s information regulation has been lost.

Ward explains that this confuses things and in the process we risk making the activity one of noise, rather than any sort of purposeful meaning and change.

I was particularly reminded of this during a recent holiday to Fiji. I had some points of frustration about the place where we stayed and thought that it might be worth providing feedback. However, what I realised the longer I stayed was that such feedback would most likely miss the mark. Rather than improve the experience for others, as I imagined the feedback should, it would more likely be weaponised and lead to worse working conditions for the staff. To put the issues in context, they were each dealt with in a timely manner. In some respects that is all you can ask for. In addition to this, it would take away from what actually made the whole time most hospitable, the people. I decided not to provide feedback.

Another scenario that comes to mind is performance reviews in schools. I remember there was political outrage a few years ago that the vast majority of teachers in Victoria seemingly moved up their increment each year. It was felt by some that the review process was not weeding out under performing teachers. The problem I had then (and have now) is that it is failure for the wrong purpose. Teachers are not steam engines in need of optimisation towards some sort of greatness. Instead, they require feedback and follow-up based on particular contexts and conditions. This is why performance reviews are different to coaching programs. Jon Andrews explains this difference as improvement verses development.


The question that often feels overlooked when it comes to feedback is who or what is it actually for? It is easy enough to collect clicks and likes, but without purpose it can quickly just become noise. Data ain’t data, to treat it so misunderstands its purpose and association with feedback.


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Data Ain’t Data – Reflecting on Feedback by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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