Use feedforward to find your big idea

By looking at future possibilities instead of past failures, we move people and ideas forward.

Feedforward is the new fuel of feedback. It’s more than just a play on words. It’s an entirely new playbook for how we think about people, performance and potential. It activates our most human desire for agency and achievement. And it focuses on a future people can still change, not a past they can’t.

Shifting our perspective can make all the difference. When we start to focus on future possibilities instead of past failures, there is no limit to our potential.

Setbacks are starting points

Spencer Silver should know. Silver worked as a research scientist for 3M, the world’s largest manufacturer of consumer goods. Back in 1968, Silver was trying to develop a new type of glue for the company’s line of adhesives. After tinkering with different solutions in his lab, Silver ended up with an adhesive that was, to put it charitably, unusual.  It didn’t dissolve. It didn’t bond. And it didn’t stick to most surfaces.

Would you buy glue that didn’t stick? Probably not.

Which is exactly what other research scientists at 3M told Silver after he showed them his strange glue at a product demonstration. So Silver went back to his lab, started over, and pretty much forgot about the glue-less glue.

Look for hidden potential

But not everyone did. Around that same time, another scientist at 3M named Art Fry had a problem of his own. He was a member of the choir at his St. Paul church and routinely kept losing the bookmarks in his hymnbook during services. He was at Silver’s product demonstration and wondered if the “glue that didn’t stick” might just keep the bookmarks from slipping out of the book without damaging its pages.

He was right.

 Silver and Fry soon began collaborating on an early prototype of a “temporarily permanent” glue. Most of their models failed to catch on with company executives, but Silver and Fry stuck with it. (Bad pun. But too irresistible to pass up.) They finally caught a break in the late 1970s when 3M began testing  their glue an office product with 3M secretaries.

It was a hit!

Silver and Fry’s adhesive launched in the early 1980s under the name “Press and Peel” and was applied to small, canary yellow pieces of paper – which, according to legend, happened to be the color that 3M had overstocked at the time.

A decade later, the product gained more fame and even a new name – and the Post-It note has become a fixture of how we work and live ever since. 

Feedforward: Shift your view

Imagine how differently things would have turned out had Spencer Silver and Art Fry listened to the skeptics. Your glue is useless. It has no market value. There’s no way this can work. The feedback they received pointed only the mistakes and missteps of the past. It looked backward, not forward.

But instead of dwelling on past failures, Silver and Fry looked forward to future possibilities. There wasn’t anything wrong with their glue – just the way people looked at it. Once they changed the view, Silver and Fry got their breakthrough. 

Feedback is only a burden because we’ve got it backwards. The creation of the Post-It note shows that feedback flourishes when it operates in future tense, where promise and possibility still reside.

If we want to move people and ideas forward, then we need to adopt a matching mindset and message. There’s hidden potential waiting to be uncovered. And when we adopt a feedforward approach, we might just be surprised by what we find.

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