The human brain loves a challenge, but only if it is within an optimal zone of difficulty.
Pretend you love chess and want to get better at it. So, you set yourself a goal to win every game you play in the coming weeks.
First, you play a serious match against a child, but you quickly become bored. It’s too easy. You win every time. You may want to win, but you also want a challenge.
You decide to test yourself and play the professional chess player (and grandmaster), Nona Gaprindashvili, but you quickly lose motivation because the match is too difficult. She’s a world-class chess champion and she quickly dominates each match.
Now, consider playing chess against an equally skilled player or someone who’s slightly better than you. As the game progresses, you win a few points and you lose a few. You have a good chance of winning, but only if you really try. Your focus narrows, distractions fade away and you find yourself fully invested in the task at hand. This is a challenge of just manageable difficulty and it is a prime example of the Goldilocks Rule.
The Goldilocks Rule
The Goldilocks Rule is the concept of something being “just the right amount.” It’s easily understood and applied to a wide range of disciplines, including developmental psychology, biology, astronomy, economics and engineering.
How can you use this concept to kickstart feedback loops that can lead to continuous growth and development, for you and your company?
Finding that “just right amount” of growth is often made more complex than it needs to be. A great deal of information about your own growth potential comes from your previous week’s outcomes.
Start where you are, instead of where you wish you were.
A feedback loop exists in a system when an output becomes the input in the next cycle. There are four steps to creating a feedback loop:
- Identify or name the behavior or trend that is seeking balance, monitoring or growth.
- Measure (without censure) the behavior, trend or output.
- Study/compare against expectations and/or past performance and/or industry averages.
- Strategize for new methods of implementation and/or training and/or adjusted expectations.
Feedback loops are often divided into two types, although they aren’t exclusive and are often complimentary, which is how we deploy them:
- Monitor very specific behaviors, getting them back on track if they move outside specific parameters that are set, which stabilizes the system to achieve a desired result. These systems can be very effective at both moderating worrisome trends and kick-starting new behaviors. We use these daily, weekly, monthly and annually as an organization. I use them daily as an individual.
- Reinforcing increases the effect of a particular system or process once it’s been balanced. These systems can be great for creating Goldilocks zones and striving towards cementing positive habits; they naturally amplify and strengthen behaviors, and are really good around systemic growth.
Identify/Name the behavior/trend/goal that is seeking balance/monitoring/growth
These behaviors, trends or goals are meant to be written, rewritten and even completely scrapped if they’re not working for you. So, while beginning anything from scratch can be daunting, it’s all just part of an ongoing process. Be ready to scrap unrealistic goals that are killing morale.
Goals come from what everyone in your company is working together to achieve during a specific time frame. What are your quarterly goals?
Benchmarks are the small but important things you need to do to achieve that goal. Used correctly, they become actionable, rallying cries for your team for each feedback loop.
Measure the behavior/trend/output
The output of your current behavior becomes the input for your new behavior.
Measurement is the foundation of every feedback loop. All feedback loops have one key characteristic: the output from one cycle becomes the input for the next cycle. Data improves awareness and awareness is the first step to changing behaviors.
Study/compare against expectations/past performance/industry averages
Comparison is essential for making sense of your feedback loop. Measuring something is useless if it’s not relevant to your goal or benchmark.
The comparison between where you are and where you want to be makes the next step clear. Effective feedback loops help you make comparisons that are personal and relevant. This is where the Goldilocks zone comes into play.
Sometimes goals and benchmarks are unrealistic. It’s valuable to look around at industry standards or other outside sources for clarity, widening your measurement options.
Say you’ve been running 5ks successfully. Using a successful feedback loop, you may decide an Ironman Triathlon is your next step, but that would be setting yourself up for failure. Industry standards for progression from a 5k is to a 10k, then a half-marathon and then a marathon.
Strategize for new methods of implementation/ training/ adjusted expectations
An adjustment is the action that closes the feedback loop. Adjustments should be made as quickly as possible. The more rapid the change, the tighter the feedback loop. In the words of Seth Godin, “The best way to change long-term behavior is with short-term feedback.”
Ideally, you have multiple feedback loops in place giving you information to help you perform better. You should be actively looking for glitches in the system, issues that may arise because they’re unexpected or because your expectations don’t align with the output.
When feedback loops fail, it is often because of one of these four issues:
- Measuring the wrong thing (I suggest checking out the website, What Matters.)
- Expectations aren’t aligned with reality (I like the Heath brothers’ WRAP process.)
- Comparison isn’t relevant/related to the output.
- Feedback is slow or non-existent.
Solving these four problems is essential to building an effective feedback loop.